As tighter emission control regulations push the automotive
industry to create the hybrid and electric fleets of the
future, automakers are increasingly focusing their attention on
new technologies to meet the increased power demands of those
vehicles. Lead-acid batteries may not be mentioned often when
automakers talk about the hybrid and electric car fleets of the
tomorrow but they remain a core part of emerging designs due to
"Toyota does believe that hybrid is the future. It sounds a
bit dramatic, but going forward it is our core strategy,"
Jaycie Chitwood, manager of alternative technology vehicles at
Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., said.
Part of Toyota's strategy to deepen market penetration is to
offer more hybrid models and hybrid versions of conventional
vehicles, as well as to continue paring the premium customers
have to pay for hybrids. While Toyota doesn't make a
conventional version of the Prius, the basic 2010 Camry starts
at $21,195 while the hybrid version of the sedan is priced at
$26,900-a premium of $5,705, or nearly 27 percent, over the
"Battery technology is the biggest challenge facing all
electrified vehicles," Gil Portalatin, hybrid applications
manager at Ford Motor Co., said. The Dearborn, Mich.-based
automaker has been selling hybrids since 2004.
At the luxury end of the spectrum, Mercedes-Benz, part of
Germany's Daimler AG offers two hybrid models in the United
States: the ML 450, a sport utility vehicle with a nickel-metal
hydride battery, and the S400, a large luxury-class sedan
powered by a dedicated lithium-ion battery. The price
difference between the S400 hybrid and the gasoline-powered
S550 is harder to measure: while the hybrid is cheaper at
$87,950 vs. the S550's $91,600 price tag, the latter is
slightly roomier-and can go from zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds
compared with the hybrid's 7.2 seconds.
The industry-wide push to make hybrid vehicles is far from
altruistic. The European Commission last April tightened its
emission standards to 130 grams of carbon dioxide per
kilometer, with 65 percent of each automaker's new vehicles to
be in compliance by 2012. Those who fail to comply face
President Obama followed Europe's move in May, mandating a
corporate average fuel economy standard of 35.5 miles per
gallon by 2016, or a 30-percent increase in fuel efficiency
from previous standards, fast-tracking the regulation
originally set for 2020.
Reaching those targets will require a wide array of
technological advances and while some OEMs are betting solely
on diesel or hybrid technology to meet the new standards,
Mercedes is pursuing a three-pronged approach. The company is
building hybrids, pioneering innovations-like the clean-diesel
engine it introduced in Europe and the United States-and
building more-efficient gasoline-powered engines. Mercedes also
is working on hydrogen fuel cell technology that it hopes to
bring to market.
"We have a philosophy that there's not just one solution," a
spokesman for Mercedes USA LLC, Montvale, N.J., said. The
multifaceted approach helped the German automaker bring the
first mass-produced lithium-ion battery powered car to the
market in the form of its S400 sedan. "The lithium-ion battery
is around the same size as you'd find in a traditional car and
it sits in the engine compartment," the spokesman said. "Then
we have a lead-acid battery in the trunk for powering the
Although lead-acid batteries may seem like an afterthought
in the futuristic space inhabited by hybrid electric vehicles,
the time-tested, conventional batteries are to be found in
every commercially available hybrid on the market.
The difference is "they serve two completely different
purposes in the vehicle," Toyota's Chitwood said. While
nickel-metal or lithium-ion batteries provide motive power,
lead-acid cranks the engine and runs the vehicle's electrical
system and accessories.
"For the purpose the 12-volt battery serves, lead-acid is by
far the least-expensive option out there," Chitwood said. "I
don't see a scenario where the cost of nickel-metal would be
reduced to parity of lead-acid. In order for another battery
technology to take the place of lead-acid, the costs would have
to come down by several orders of magnitude."
When it comes to the cost of nickel-metal hydride batteries,
Toyota should know. The company chose to develop its battery
technology in-house, spending millions on research and
development. "Because we're now relying on the battery to
provide power to drive the vehicle and it's so intimately
integrated in the vehicle, we think of it as a core
competency," Chitwood said.
Toyota now sells its batteries through an alliance with
Panasonic Corp. to a wide range of other OEMs, including Nissan
Motor Co. Ltd., Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and General Motors Co.'s
Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC operations.
It is in the emerging market for high-technology batteries
that lead-acid battery makers will likely find their next
growth opportunity. While lead-acid will continue to be used in
hybrids, the value-added opportunities lie in meeting new
technology demands. Mercedes-Benz, for example, sources its
lithium-ion batteries from the partnership between Johnson
Controls Inc. and France's Saft SA.
But having production closer to home would likely benefit
research and innovation. "Locally mass-produced battery cells
would benefit all electrified products," Ford's Portalatin