Honda’s Low-Cost Hybrid Strategy: Lithium Ion Batteries

While the high cost of next generation lithium ion batteries is viewed as an obstacle to adoption of pure electric cars, lithium might be the key to making conventional hybrids more affordable. Bloomberg reported today that Honda—which has focused its hybrid marketing strategy on making hybrids nearly as affordable as gas-powered cars—is swiftly moving to put lithium batteries in the Civic Hybrid and its other hybrids.

Honda hopes that shifting its hybrid battery technology to lithium ion—which packs more power in a smaller space—will help the company gain an advantage over Toyota. In addition to moving to lithium batteries, Honda is planning to increase hybrid production in small and large cars and to introduce Acura luxury hybrids.

Toyota’s recent safety troubles have created an opportunity for other producers of hybrid cars. Honda hybrid sales have been lagging in recent years. Yet, February 2010 sales of the Honda Insight and Civic Hybrid increased by 54 percent and 37 percent respectively, compared to the previous month. Sales of the Toyota Prius dropped by 6 percent in February—although the model still dominates the US and Japanese hybrid markets. Koichi Kondo, Honda executive vice president, told Bloomberg that Honda could put lithium ion batteries in the Civic Hybrid “within the next two to three years.”

By contrast, Toyota believes that lithium batteries do not justify the higher cost, and that current hybrid battery technology—nickel metal hydride—is best suited for conventional hybrids. The company came to that conclusion last fall after conducting three years of “secret tests” on 126 Toyota Priuses equipped with lithium ion batteries.

In a Twist, Lithium Ion Is Cheaper

While similarly sized lithium ion batteries may cost 30 percent more than the current nickel metal hydride batteries, carmakers could use lithium batteries to reduce battery costs by building smaller packs. In an interview with HybridCars.com in December, John German—who worked as an environmental engineer for Honda for 11 years and is now a senior fellow for the International Council for Clean Transportation—said the next wave of lithium ion batteries will help conventional hybrids hit the mainstream.

“Lithium ion batteries will reduce the cost of the battery pack for conventional hybrids, but they’re not going to reduce the cost of the battery pack for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles,” German said.

Power vs. Energy

A quick refresher course on the difference between power and energy, and why it matters.

German believes lithium ion batteries will alleviate the need for automakers to make hybrids with oversized nickel-based battery packs. The packs are currently sized for delivering enough power rather than for storing sufficient energy. German said, “The reason they’re oversized is that with nickel metal hydride, you’re limited in how fast you can take energy in and out of a battery without causing significant deterioration.” As a consequence, today’s hybrid batteries hold a lot more energy than they need to, and are therefore more expensive than they need to be. “With the new high-power lithium ion batteries, they can cut them down to their actual energy requirements and still get all the power they need,” German said.

Eventually, all carmakers are expected to make the shift to lithium ion batteries for hybrids. If Honda’s strategy works, and other carmakers start using smaller more affordablelithium ion hybrid batteries, the higher purchase price of gas-sipping hybrid gas-electric cars could be slashed, dramatically increasing their popularity.


  • BigRed

    I agree with Honda’a concept and adaption of the Li packs. However, I am weary of the three year limited warranty. Yes — a grand total of three wam-bam thank-you-ma’am years before your little Honda Hybrid will (probably) cost more to fix than to replace.

    I truly hope Honda and other car manufacturers get their hybrid programs on track. My puchase decisions will be based on mpg, distance on electric, price and a strong emphasis on warranty (warranty = manufacturer’s faith in their own product).

    I wish I could just throw money down on a Fisker Karma. Being a retired Army NCO and the only bread-winner at the house makes a Karma only a dream. I cannot afford a $20K car at the moment. Let’s hope prices go down and qualitiy goes up. I retired the Army Green and now I want to participate in the new GREEN — once I can afford it.

  • Anonymous

    i think this is a positive step to push toyota forward

  • Anonymous

    just to clarify, competition wise

  • Anonymous

    Don’t batteries of Honda Insight have a separate 8yr/10yr and 100,000 miles /150,000 miles warranty? (depends on which state you’re in)

    Better to check out at their web site.

  • DownUnder

    How about the Toyota FT-CH? Will it have Lithium-ion or Ni-MH? This move by Honda may push Toyota forward as Ano. said. Toyota is very conservative.

  • Chip Daigle

    Quoting James Carville, Are you on Crack Cocaine? Replacing NiMH Batteries with Li-Ion Batteries will not reduce the price of the Hybrid; it will increase it. Have you heard about Dumb, Dumb, and Dumber in Detroit charging $40K for a compact car? Your magazine looses all credibility when you make such outlandish statements.

  • Shines

    Chip I don’t think you are reading the article carefully. The $40K for a compact car is an electric car. Honda is talking hybrids.
    If honda can replace the larger non Li batteries with smaller and lighter Li their cars will get better fuel economy for the same cost which is half the cost of the $40k car you are referring to.
    It is not outlandish to think the cost of Li batteries will come down if almost all auto manufacturers (which probably includes Toyota) switch to that technology.

  • Max Reid

    For vehicles lights & music – Lead-acid battery will do.
    For regular hybrids – Nickel-hydride battery will do.
    For plugin hybrds – Lithion-ion battery is needed.

    Toyota has sold more than 2 million hybrids and they know they are on right track. Plugin prius is going to come with Li-ion.

    Honda would have sold just 300,000 hybrids and is just wavering.
    Insight took away the sales from Civic-Hybrid and no one know the future of civic-h.

    Lets see how the CR-Z is coming out. They better price it properly to sell in higher volumes. But market is moving towards either full hybrids or plugin hybrids. It will be better if Honda moves from their partial hybrids towards full hybrids.

  • Anonymous

    does anyone know if all 2011 prius will have Li or just the plug-in version will have them? it would be nice to have them even for non-plugin given the weight saving

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Shines, I know that you are right. Toyota is also, indirectly, saying that Honda is right. Toyota is not talking about a 16Kw lithium battery (like the Volt) but a smaller battery. That reduces the cost compared to a 16Kw battery even though it will not get the $7500 tax credit. If one is not going to produce a car that goes 300 to 500 miles on pure battery (very expensive battery) for the masses, then what is the alternative? I agree with you and the others that say use a smaller lithium battery and save some money and affordability.

  • Anonymous

    if toyota’s model cycle stays 4 to 5 years, and Li Ion is coming within the current model cycle, this begs the question if this means the 2010 models can be easily retrofitted with Li-ion once the NiMh pack needs to be changed down the road (say 10 yrs). i personally hope NiMh vs Li Ion swap would be simple, as this would encourage purchase of the current vehicle rather than continuing waiting for Li Ion for unknown number of years. i certainly would buy the vehicle today if toyota can make the commitment to include supports for future Li Ion swaps.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    Anonymous, if one bought a 2005 Prius or later, one can already replace the metal halides with lithium batteries right now. It may even be possible for all Prius from 2001 thru 2004 although I am not personally aware of any such upgrade kits. In the 2010 Prius, the wiring is already set up for upgrading by Toyota from metal halide to lithium. This round Toyota will not miss out on the money that can be earned by upgrading the batteries.

  • John K.

    Acc to the notes I keep on my Palm PDA about release dates, Toyota will be releasing a plug-in Prius w/Li ion for up to 14.5 miles of pure e for less than $34k in Nov 2011 when it releases the *2012* models.

    I do not have any notes indicating if/when they will release a non-plug-in Prius w/Li ion.

  • John K.

    Li ion w/in “within the next two to three years.” Hmm. Let’s call it 2 1/2 yrs. That’s fall of 2012 when the 2013 model year cars are released. So, Honda’s 2013 hybrid models will have Li ion. Whooptie Doo.

    If Honda said they’d release Li ion in 2011 model year (next Nov, just before the Li ion Volt), that would be a significant push forward and worth praising. If they said they’d release it in their 2012 models (I *think* Toyota will be releasing a Li ion plug-in Prius about then), that would still be something worth applauding. But not until their 2013 models??? I guess it is better than waiting until their 2014 models. . . .

    FWIW I hope they release an Accord Stationwagon hybrid w/Li ion.

    Personally, I think a Ford Fusion w/Li ion and plug-in (for a dozen or so miles of pure e), would be very cost effective and popular. For me, I’d like a coupe and think it would be really good looking and popular. I also think a stationwagon version would be popular. Many who are into hybrids need more luggage space and prefer not to drive SUVs.

    Different topic: This article reminds me that car companies are signing production contracts w/battery companies NOW for their battery needs in 2012 and beyond. This means that even if EEStor finally delivers their ultracap this year, the major manufacturers might be locked into other battery tech for the next 2 to 5 years and may just have to pass on it until those contracts expire. So even if it is released today, EEStor may not have much of an impact on US oil consumption until 2015 and later. Ugh!

    This is making me think that conventional hybrids will dominate (in numbers *and* affordability) as the “green alternative” from 2010 to ~2015; then PHEVs will become a force and increase until ~2020; and after that pure EVs will ramp up prdxn. Dang! This shift away from oil/OPEC will take a LOT longer than I had hoped. Another approx. 10 years of America having a leash around its neck and sending billions of dollars to those who would destroy/enslave us “infidels.”

    BUT, if the major auto companies have already signed secret contracts w/EEStor and are willing to pay the penalties for breaching the contracts w/their NiMH or Li ion battery suppliers, all bets are off. Big changes could occur before 2015.

  • BigRed

    Is this a situation where enters the old Giant Car Corporation greed equation?: Ensure continued profit by selling vehicles with parts that have a limited life span. Enter the limited life span hybrid battery pack.

    Could the hybrid car and parts manufacturers setup a pacified public for a fall? Scenario 1: Corporations look to make long term financial gains by purposely providing limited life span batteries vice higher quality, extreme long life battery packs. Execs will be patting each other on the back 10 years later for providing stock holders (and their own pockets) with continous guaranteed earnings on batteries packs that must be replaced or sold via upgrade options.

    Scenario 2: New base line models come standard with the low power (low cost) limited life span battery packs. Dealers are given the opportunity to pad everyone’s pockets on the showroom floor by offering what you really want — which is the high power/ performance/ quality optional premium SS battery package. The dealer package is, of course, the same battery package that should already be the standard.

    This could just be me crying “the sky is falling”. After all, the big corporations would police themselves, competition will ensure we get the best product, and they will never get overly greedy at the expense of the public …..

  • David Garibaldi

    IMHO, but lithium batteries is more affordable and usable than their nickel rival. How I know lithium batteries are more easy-to-charge when their on the drive. So with the mobile phones – you can resume charging when the battery is not died already. I read a lot of literature about comparing lithium and nickel. Must say the end of nickel era is close.

  • Richado Micheals 84

    It’s a good strategy but unless some major innovations are made in the next couple of years to the industry as a whole then it’s not one they will be able to sustain. Rechargeable is vital to the future but not the magic bullet solution everyone is expecting to come out of the dark. In fact the closest thing to that is called ‘common sense’ and ‘sensibility’ but unfortunately most of us don’t have such pleasantry’s.

  • Not Enough Lithium Reserves on Earth

    There is not enough easily and inexpensively exploitable Lithium on earth to count on it as “the magic bullet” to solve “mankind’s transportation needs”.

    The problem is, many people just say “oh we don’t need oil, all we need to do is make battery powered cars for the world!”

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but it is FAR more complex than that. The Lithium resources are limited. Just to outfit all cars on earth would use up around 25% of the useable Lithium at best estimate, just for the smallest batteries and it’s likely to be FAR higher due to the need for many vehicles to have far more power. It would take decades just to set up mining infrastructure for the scale needed.

    The largest reserves are in South America. To exploit them to the fullest that would be required, will destroy a unique and ancient ecosystem.

    I suggest all those who are not educated on the realities of Lithium start here with this study.

    http://www.meridian-int-res.com/Projects/Lithium_Problem_2.pdf

    ZnAir fuel cells are going to be much more likely the ticket.

  • Sidney

    The battery warranty on the 2010 Honda Insight Hybrid is 10yrs/150,000miles in CARB states, 8yrs/100,000miles in non-CARB states. Likely the same for the Hybrid Civic.

  • calvin

    Investing in better/cheaper battery technology can only be a good thing. It’s the single biggest thing holding back the shift to hybrid electrics and plugin-in electrics.

    Hopefully the Japanese government will support efforts in this area (by Honda or anyone else). If the government puts their weight behind cheaper/better Li-Ion batteries like they did FttH deployment, then we could see some huge leaps forward within a couple of years.

    In fact, reactionary attitudes aside, I think all the major world governments should be investing in cutting edge research in battery technology. Of all the things governments like to spend money on, technological advancement and creating a greener future is probably the most desirable. And better batteries shows more practical and long-term potential than bio-diesel, hydrogen, or any of the other green technologies.

  • calvin

    @Not Enough Lithium Reserves on Earth:

    But that’s not how things work. First off, Lithium cannot be compared to oil since Lithium is not a power source. It is a manufacturing material. It also takes hundreds of millions of years for new fossil fuels to form. Lithium, OTOH, can be recycled and reused with a turnaround period of weeks.

    Secondly, resource production keeps pace with consumption. That’s why Nickel production increased 10-fold in 50 years. If we see Li-Ion battery usage increase, then naturally Lithium production will increase. And the amount of recoverable Lithium known to be available right now is enough for over 4 billion electric vehicles using current technology. That is well over 4x the number of vehicles on the road today (estimated between 600 and 800 million).

    Not only that, but technology adoption is gradual, not instantaneous. It will take at least half a century for even half of the world’s vehicles to switch to Li-Ion batteries. In that time we’ll probably see further advances in battery technology to make use of resources more efficiently with more compact batteries. And as is currently the case, there will likely continue to be a range of different battery types in use, not just Li-Ion. Unlike current cars which require fossil fuels to run, batteries are easily substitutable and an electric vehicle made today can easily switch to new battery types that may exist in the future.

    Lastly, there is relatively little actual Lithium in Li-Ion batteries. Lithium salts are used as the electrolyte in Li-Ion batteries, which range from 13-18% of the battery’s mass. The actual amount of Lithium metal in that is considerably less. The largest and most costly component in Li-Ion batteries are the cathodes. And that is what automakers are concerned with, not the Lithium component. Even the U.S. Department of Energy expects long-term Lithium supplies to be adequate for use in electric vehicles. So I’m skeptical about these alarmist claims that the world’s Lithium is going to run out.

  • übersetzung deutsch englisch

    i hope i can use this car a soon as possible

  • shakeology

    BI technologies provide historical, current, and predictive views of business operations. Common functions of business intelligence.

  • Komeksimas

    Can’t wait to use this car.

  • Expert Test

    Lithium-ion batteries are common in consumer electronics. They are one of the most popular types of rechargeable battery for portable electronics, with one of the best energy-to-weight ratios, no memory effect, and a slow loss of charge when not in use. I think an expert test may help :)

  • Lithium Explodes

    For all those celebrating the demise of nickel and the explosion of lithium onto the scene, keep in mind the other type of explosion that lithium is responsible for: laptop batteries and airplanes.

    http://www.alpa.org/portals/alpa/pressroom/pressreleases/2009/nr09.065attachment.pdf

    Remember when sony, apple, dell and lenovo had to recall all those lithium battery packs for overheating and exploding?

    Remember when the UPS cargo plane carrying lithium batteries had to make an emergency landing in philadelphia due to fire?

    People think. Lithium uses flammable liquid in its cells. What happens when a lithium powered car gets into an accident?

  • Tenant Background Check

    Wow! I want to have cars like that someday. Honda is actually my favorite brand. I like the engine, very efficient. Its very user friendly. Its my dream to have one.

  • Kevin Jones

    Lithium batteries last a lot longer than traditional ones. I use them in several devices and resume to use them for many things, especially in my laptop when searching for jobs.

  • tapra1

    strategy on making hybrids nearly as affordable as gas-powered cars—is swiftly moving to put lithium batteries in the Civic Hybrid and its other hybrids.Tech Blog

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