A Stumble in the Race for Lithium-ion Batteries

August 9, 2007: Source – The Wall Street Journal

toyota tundra

Battery woes will slow the launch of a planned super-efficient Toyota Prius, also delaying the automaker’s hybrid options for full-size trucks and SUVs like Tundra and Sequoia. For a lithium-ion Prius, Toyota is now looking at 2010 or 2011. The flagship hybrid’s redesign will still debut in 2009, but with updated nickel-metal hydride batteries.

Why the delay? Visions of fiery laptops might have something to do with it. The lithium cobalt oxide batteries Toyota is developing have chemistry similar to those Sony used in its recalled computer batteries. Toyota wants to be certain that its battery technology is safe before installing it in hundreds of thousands of vehicles.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, GM may benefit from Toyota’s difficulties:

GM is counting on a different kind of lithium-ion technology. A123 Systems, a Watertown, Mass., start-up that has come up with a lithium-ion battery based on iron phosphates, which it says is more chemically stable than others, is one of a handful of likely candidates to supply lithium-ion batteries to GM.

A senior Toyota executive said the timing for the launch of Toyota’s first lithium-ion-battery hybrid model is close to being finalized, though the company’s medium-term hybrid plan is “still very, very fluid in some aspects.” The executive said the lithium-ion Prius will most likely hit the market in early 2011 but that there is a force within Toyota’s engineering and product-development division that is insisting on launching the model by the end of 2010. In that case, it could be a horse race between Toyota and GM.

GM hopes to leapfrog Toyota with its own plug-in hybrid Volt, which could offer the possibility of different internal-combustion engines paired with lithium-ion batteries. And Honda is stealthily working on super-efficient diesel powertrains as well.

This is one horse race it will be impossible to miss—and one that may prove to be decisive in the future of sustainable transportation.

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  • Tony

    I’m not sure you could characterize GM’s Volt as “leapfrogging” Toyota’s plugin Prius, since the Volt was announced first, but close to a year. It would be more accurate to say that Toyota’s attempt to leapfrog GM appears to be in jeopardy.

    American automakers have done very little right in recent years (or decades). Let’s give them at least what little they’re due — GM was first out of the gate with plans to produce a PHEV, they’ve retained that lead all along (the best Toyota ever hoped for was to keep up), and now it looks like they’re about to extend it.

  • Andrew Hime

    Tell you what, if you believe GM will put out the Volt so much, ask them where the EV1 and Hi-Wire are.

  • Elliot

    I thought the next gen Prius was NOT going to be Lithium Ion. Wasn’t that already a done deal? If so, why would this delay the next gen Prius?

    Or am I just way off?

  • John

    Future Battery Disposal:
    Thermal runaway still remains a great concern to manufacturers that use lithium ion batteries.
    They have been, and will remain at risk to go into this dangerous reaction at extreme temperatures.
    Are vehicle manufacturers going to take the liability risk of using this type of battery in vehicles eventually ending up in landfills that could potentially explode or start a fire? I say no they will not! They will continue with the nickel metal hydride battery that currently power hundreds of thousands of Hybrids and remain the ONLY battery in existance that can safely be dispossed of at the local landfill.
    If it works, don’t fix it!

  • Pragmatist

    The Volt is a concept car. Like hydrogen fuel cell cars. Like cars that fly in the sky. Like all manner of pie-in-the-sky that are trotted out at car shows to show how technologically adept you are.

    The Prius is a real car, in production. The next-generation Prius is a platform upgrade which is already on the drawing boards. The Prius is already on its second platform, the next-gen Prius will be the third.

    You can’t leapfrog a real car with a fantasy car.

  • Bob

    The Wall Street Journal article says that the next Prius will come out in 2009–but it will use nickel metal hydride batteries. That’s not news, but the race to become the first auto company to use lithium batteries is heating up, and that is news. Several companies are talking about it, but talk is easy. Getting the technology right, and having trust in the manufacturing of the batteries is tricky, as the article shows. We might be having this same debate five years from now. Meanwhile, what are the respective companies doing to boost the efficiency of their vehciels?

  • SteveC

    I think toyota is being smart. Just let one lithium battery hybrid catch fire in the middle of rush hour traffic and it could be the end of hybrids. I don’t want a vehicle that’s not safe. Someone will figure out the next generation battery that’s safe. I wish Toyota luck. If GM figures it out first then good for them but I’ll put my money on Toyota.

  • JAK

    Tesla Motors will be delivering their Roadster this fall. I’d say that they will be the first company to deliver a production car (a full EV) using Li Ion batteries. I think they are using the same chemistry batteries as Toyota, except their battery pack consists of something like 6000 laptop batteries in a water-cooled box. If one overheats, the electronics automatically take it offline, and the thermal management is designed to isolate the problem

  • Jeff

    Tesla will definitely be the leader in all electric performance, pioneering systems for everyone else to copy. The sales price of the care takes care of battery recycling. All Li Ion cell systems are made up of multiple batter packs as this is currently the safest way to package the energy.

    John,

    You’re a bit off base about disposal of Li Ion batteries. As long as they are fully discharged they are quite safe. Any battery that has a full charge and is shorted out can cause a fire. I believe that NiMh batteries are far less eco-friendly to manufacture as well.

  • PaulT

    GM has a small position in Valence Technologies. 481,387 shares at .46 cents each. Li-ion based batteries are easier to dispose of and don’t have as much impact to the environment as nickel metal hydride. Check this video out of a rifle shot shooting through an off the shelf lithium-ion and Valence’s Saphion for nice demonstration of thermal runaway.

    http://www.valence.com/technology/safety_video.html

    A lot of shareholders are wondering why GM or Toyota hasn’t approached them for any deals on their large format batteries. It’s been proven safe time and time again.

  • Jethro

    lithium Technology have and are currently retrofitting Prius’s to attain plug in status and gain a MPC of 125+. Obviously this is only done to private owners and are in no way connected with Toyota (which is a shame)

    They use the same Li Ion Phosate technology as A123, which GM is in contact with, but the difference here is that they are a established, solid company with well over 20 years in battery R&D and production. I am not sure why no automaker is approaching them, I guess what they lack in marketing they make up for in battery technology. This is the company of the future!

    Check them out: http://www.lithiumtech.com/

  • BB

    According to Reuters this morning, Toyota may not revamp the Prius for 2008, and instead push the current model beyond the typical five-year life span.

    “It’s possible” a new Prius may arrive next year, “but probably not,” said Jim Lentz, Toyota’s U.S. executive vice president of sales.

  • AP

    I read today that Toyota itself is downplaying the benefits of plug-ins, saying that people’s expectations of decreased emissions are overblown. This might be what they believe, but it’s probably spin. It’s more likely a sign they are having BIG problems with their lithium ion batteries.

  • geisemann

    I have driven many Prius including my freinds

    My opinion is its a big Fad and people who buy it are not reading the true story. They waste money and causing more air smog by causing new cars to be built. Plus all the money in one of these goes straight to a foreign country. Only 1/8 of the money in this car goes back to the USA. Where when you buy an American car no matter where its built 85% of the money goes back into the USA.

    I looked up the first electric car was the Detroit Electric in 1918 got 40 miles on a charge and used no gas at all.

    Hybrids come from technologies that are not established. IE. Hybrid TV sets of the 1960s Transistor/Tube. Now its all Transistors or IC’s. The only car you will see in 20 years is all EV you wont see any hybrids because they will be in-efficient.

    First of all Prius is Very frumpy

    Second you can get better millage on many cars close on some SUVs like the Ford escape.

    IN Washington DC I see all the Prius owners ride around in the 100 degree heat with the windows open because when the AC is running the car has to be on Engine Only mode no EV. So you get like 30 MPG … Funny how the famous car fails when you have heat.

    The correct figures on Prius are like 40 City.

    I have friends who own them and they get about that.

    Toyota famous lies is what I cant stand. There cars are not safe in fact I read where the new Tundra failed the crash tests. This company just cares about profits and draining the American dollar to make Japan richer oh and I love the ads ” Made in America” what they dont tell you is all the money and profits dont go back into this country. Infact I read some research you would have to buy 4 toyotas to equal what one GM or Ford puts back into our country.

    Its nasty when people sell out to there own country to just be ” IN Style”

  • Gerald Shields

    Hybrids are certainly no FAD otherwise, why would GM would invest in what’s being described as a “Plug-In Hybrid”. Moreover, beyond the Plug-In Hybrids are fully viable 2nd generation electric cars that can go over 100 mpg.

    But, on the subject of GM, I hope they do ship this car, I really do, but this is the same company that “killed” the EV-1. To be honest, I’m not interested in what the Big Three is doing. They are “Yesterday’s Automakers” and should be perceived and treated as such.

  • Daniel

    I have to disagree with geismann. The same argument was made with the small car from asia in the 1970′s. “To small”, “unsafe”, “FAD”. the market has proven that. Second let assume that his argument of the money going back to Japan is accurate. They still employ US workers, and second I would rather my money go to the far east than to the DAM middle east. As much as you might not like Japan I’ll bet you like the middle east even less. When and if an american car company makes a high end hybrid, EV , or hydrogen power car I’ll compaire it to it’s peers from Aisa and Europe and North America. And he who has the better “mouse trap” will get my business. Long live capitalism.

  • Elliot

    Geismann,

    With all due respect, I think you are mistaken.

    First, you complain about how hybrids don’t meet the epa est’s, but then fail to mention that most other cars don’t meet these estimates either.

    Second, the only Ford Escape that gets “good” gas mileage is the…..hybrid. Surprise!

    Third, I agree that hybrids are a transition technology. And? What is the problem? Should we all drive cars that get subpar gas mileage for the next 5, 10, 20 years waiting for this car to hit the market?? That doesn’t make any sense.

    Fourth, if everyone does wait for this hypothetical ev car, that means nobody will be buying more fuel efficient vehicles now. Which means that the automakers will have even less incentive for producing these vehicles….which will push back the development of such a vehicle.

    Fifth, where do you think the Camry is made? Right here in my home state. So, you want to buy an “American” hybrid, but that one. And while we are at it….exactly WHOSE fault is it that we don’t have more domestic options in this market segment? I think we all know the answer to that question. The same people that bet the farm on Suburbans and Expeditions.

    Sixth, along those line, I for one WANT a domestically produced option. But I am not going to buy an inferior product or something that gets cr*p gas mileage just because it was made in the USA. The Escape Hybrid is on my “possible purchase” list. But there are no other options. Once again, whose fault is that? I want to buy such a vehicle, but right now I only have ONE domestic option.

    Finally, if you think that people are doing this to be “in style” then you have no clue what this is all about.

  • Oracle

    Guys the issue is buy now or wait. If Toyota wants to sell any prius’ to people in the next year or two, they better provide for a reasonably-priced battery replacement upgrade path for those vehicles to the new battery tech austensibly due in 2010. If they don’t, people will wait and sales of hybrid vehicles will plummet. I, for one, can and will wait.

  • TheFlyingDutchmen

    Andrew Hime “Tell you what, if you believe GM will put out the Volt so much, ask them where the EV1 and Hi-Wire are. “

    What did Toyota say when you asked them where the Rav4 Electric Vehicle was?

  • TheFlyingDutchmen

    It is nice to hope for a future of plug-in electrics and electric vehicles. With oil production peaking they are essential to sustaining our current way of life. However, where will the extra electricity come from to not only power our future vehicles, but also to provide for the extra 100 million people we will add in the next 30 years (and that’s at current immigration rates which most politicians seem to want to increase, not decrease)?

    Coal reserves have been found to be grossly overstated. And it has been said that the peak in energy content of coal being mined has already passed.

    There is a real possibility the transportation future could look a lot like the past – bicycles and electric trolleys. And maybe horses out in the countryside.

  • mark

    What about Altair’s NanoSafe Li-Titanate batteries that are right now going into Phoenix SUTs? They are reportedly, um, safe. Personally, I want a PISH version of the Carver: http://www.flytheroad.com/
    (PISH: plug-in serial hybrid).

  • Pinball Fan

    TheFlyingDutchmen quoted Andrew Hime who said: “Tell you what, if you believe GM will put out the Volt so much, ask them where the EV1 and Hi-Wire are.”

    Then TheFlyingDutchmen asked: “What did Toyota say when you asked them where the Rav4 Electric Vehicle was?”

    And I say: Toyota ceased production of the Rav4 Electric Vehicle, but they did sell them to anyone that wished to buy one (admittedly they were reluctant at first, but they did come around). Have you asked GM who they sold their EV1s to?