14 Aug 2009
Silently running star
A silent, green evolution is going on in the motor vehicle industry, and France is among a handful of countries making that happen.
"Silent" because new vehicles will be powered, at least in part, by batteries, which operate without the noise of internal combustion engines. "Green", because they will reduce CO2 emissions. And it is an "evolution", not a revolution, because changes will come gradually, with a decisive sprint over the next four years.
But the changes are definitely coming, which mean opportunities for battery manufacturers both in Europe and Asia, probably in co-operation on research and development as well as production.
"By 2030, electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) will enjoy at least 20% penetration of the new car market," states a 21 May 2009 report by industry analyst Gartner Dataquest.
"Vendors targeting this market should have established themselves as proven technology innovators and leaders by 2015," Research Vice President and Analyst, Mike Williams, adds.
The potential for battery manufacturers is huge. Market Avenue, a market research company, reports that some 400,000 HEVs were sold in 2006 worldwide and 1 million in 2008, with 2.1 million expected to be sold in 2010 and 6 million in 2015.
So far, most batteries used in plug-in hybrids have been nickel-metal hydride, which is low energy density. Lithium-ion, which weighs far less and stores more power than those in today's hybrids, will likely be the dominant technology for vehicle batteries, as well as for the tiny ones used for electronic devices.
China, with more than 10 manufacturers, has declared lithium-ion a strategic industry. Mainland battery giant BYD Auto produces a small plug-in hybrid sedan, the F6DM, that it says can run 100 km on a lithium-ion battery before the vehicle switches to gasoline. In China, BYD sells its plug-in hybrid car for US$22,000.
R&D strides in France
France, a leader in transport technology innovation, is a major participant in this industry, with its giant car manufacturers as well as smaller companies developing new battery-powered vehicles.
The French government announced recently that it would contribute US$568 million to the development of electric and hybrid vehicles.
"There are some big initiatives (for electric vehicles) in France," says Franck Cecchi, Chief Operating Officer for Johnson Controls-Saft.
"French companies want to launch 100,000 EVs here in the next five years," he adds. "France is big in research and development."
The American company Johnson Controls and French battery producer Saft opened a factory together in Nersac, France in January 2008, to manufacture lithium-ion car batteries for hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.
They supply American, European and Chinese car manufacturers.
"We can produce 10,000 battery packs a year, and can increase production," says Cecchi.
One of the company's first and most high profile contracts was with Mercedes-Benz. Its S400 Blue Hybrid is the world's first production hybrid with a battery using lithium-ion cells, rather than the less energy-dense nickel-metal-hydride.
The S400's price in Europe is about US$101,800, some US$10,900 more than for the S350.
Cecchi says the joint venture will also supply lithium-ion hybrid battery systems for the BMW 7 Series ActiveHybrid, to be available in 2010, as well as for Azure Dynamics's Balance Hybrid Electric commercial vehicles, also available in 2010 and for Ford's first plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, available in 2012.
Asia to pick up on low-emission demand
"Asia has a big push on for low emission vehicles," says Cecchi. "Japan was the first to produce electric vehicles, but the industry is big in China now."
Saft is interested in supplying facilities in Asia, and is in contact with several companies. Last year, the French company opened a development centre in Shanghai.
Major French car manufacturers are also active in researching and producing EVs and HEVs.
PSA Peugeot Citroën, together with Mitsubishi, will launch a small passenger car in Europe at the end of next year. The two automakers will jointly develop the electrically-powered vehicle for the European market based on Mitsubishi's i MiEV car now sold in Japan.
It will be sold under the Peugeot brand, with name still not revealed, alongside the European version of the i MiEV marketed by Mitsubishi itself. The small 4-door, 4-seats EV will be launched at the end of 2010.
Eric Breton, Director of PSA Peugeot Citroën's Hybrid and Electric Programmes Department, says: "we think that there is a bright future for electric cars for daily use."
The company, which has sold more than 10,000 units of earlier hybrids since 1995, is the lead producer of private and utility electric vehicles, having supplied almost 65% of the cars in service around the world.
Recently, Peugeot Citroën teamed with Venturi to bid on a French post office tender for electric delivery vehicles. La Poste, the French post office, is currently testing Citroën's proposed vehicle, a Berlingo First electric van. La Poste will select the supplier of 500 mail delivery vans.
PSA is also developing the Peugeot 3008 and Citroën DS, plug-in diesel-electric lithium hybrid passenger cars, to be available by the middle of 2011.
The Peugeot will resemble the current, elegant 3008 crossover, with a few subtle, external differences. "By 2011, some ecologically-minded people with money will be potential customers," says Breton. The company has not yet announced a price for the new cars.
"In the future, in the short term, PSA Peugeot Citroën believes that the mid-term future for electric vehicles will be with plug-in hybrids rather than pure EVs. Plug-in hybrids will be cheaper than pure EVs, will have the same daily electric range of 35 to 70 km and will use fuel-efficient engines for long distances," he adds.
The cost of the electric power for full hybrids and for batteries is decreasing steadily and there is a wide range of prices and types of batteries.
"By 2020, 10% to 20% of cars will be plug-in or electric," Breton predicts.
"We still do not know where we will buy the batteries," he adds. "There are a lot of different technologies. It is developing quickly."
Larger and smaller rivals
France's other large car maker, Renault, signed an agreement last year with Japan's Nissan to develop an EV charging infrastructure in France, which will enable a country-wide electric vehicle launch in 2011.
Thierry Koskas, Director of Renault's EV Programme, says the ambitious Renault-Nissan Alliance plans to start selling an all-electric vehicle in 2011, with the lithium-ion battery pack coming from Nissan and NEC.
In July, the Renault-Nissan Alliance also announced joint plans with the governments of the UK and Portugal to build two plants for the production of its advanced lithium-ion batteries in Europe.
The EV field looks so promising a number of smaller companies is getting involved. French company Lumeneo is producing a small electric car, the SMERA, which sells for about US$34,800.
The two-seat vehicle looks somewhat like an enclosed, four-wheel motorcycle, with the passenger sitting behind the driver. The SMERA, which went on sale in Paris in May, is capable of almost 180 km per hour and goes about 145 km on a charge.
The company purchases its batteries from two Asian suppliers, but will not reveal which ones, and intends to narrow it down to just one.
"I believe the idea will work," says Lumeneo Director of Marketing, Xavier Doublet. "We have many applicants, not just people who want to be green, but from early adapters, from people avoiding traffic problems."
While initial sales will be modest, the company would like to sell millions, he adds. "The city would be quiet, with no parking problems and no pollution."
Doublet believes that the switch to electric vehicles will take about four years. "For the next five years, it will be cars below 500 kgs," he adds.
Besides car batteries, lithium-ion is the battery chemistry of choice for future generations of portable electronics such as cell phones and laptops. Rechargeable, or storage batteries, are a continuing strong market, with worldwide sales of US$36 billion in 2008, predicted to rise to US$51 billion by 2013.
In 2008, lithium-ion battery research had more funding than all other battery technologies combined. The demand for new wireless devices, games, cell phones, digital cameras and other portable electronic devices such as MP3 players will fuel an increased demand for small batteries.
from special correspondent Garry Marchant, Paris