Consumers already may be wary of lithium ion batteries. Overheating by those batteries led to fires in laptop computers and massive recalls. But lithium ion batteries are widely viewed as the next leap in hybrid technology.
With roughly half the weight and twice the power or energy of the nickel-metal hydride batteries powering today's hybrids, lithium ion batteries will enable a hybrid to travel farther on electricity. They'll boost fuel economy and lower emissions. And the new batteries will make plug-in hybrids possible.
Toyota Motor Corp. was widely expected to debut its lithium ion batteries in the next-generation Prius in 2009. But the automaker reversed course this summer. Now it says the next-generation Prius will stick with nickel-metal hydride batteries.
At General Motors' battery lab in suburban Detroit, test machines run 24 hours a day, charging and discharging lithium ion battery packs from Johnson Controls-Saft, A123 Systems, Compact Power and other would-be suppliers. Those machines push the batteries to their limits and monitor every facet of the batteries' performance.
Ford Motor Co. also is taking its time evaluating the new batteries. "Putting something out there that isn't right could destroy the image of the technology," says Nancy Gioia, Ford's director of sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid vehicle programs. "I'd love to be first, but my goal is to get it right."
GM has placed a big bet on lithium ion batteries, which will power its Chevrolet Volt. GM believes the batteries will be ready for production by 2010 or 2011 and is advertising the Volt electric vehicle concept on TV and on billboards around the country.
GM, Ford, Toyota, Chrysler LLC and others are running test fleets of hybrids with lithium ion batteries in a number of countries under extreme temperatures and various driving conditions.
With Toyota tapping the brakes on its lithium ion batteries, Johnson Controls-Saft now could be first on the market with the product.
The company plans to ship the batteries next summer to Daimler AG for use in a Mercedes mild hybrid sedan and then to BMW AG for a similar use. Johnson Controls-Saft also has battery contracts with GM for a plug-in version of the Saturn Vue, and with several other automakers for lithium ion batteries.
Johnson Controls-Saft is a Franco-American joint venture. Johnson Controls Inc., a supplier best known for its interior components, also dominates the replacement lead-acid battery market with numerous brands sold at auto parts stores and dealerships. Saft, a giant French battery company, makes lithium ion batteries for military and industrial uses.