The LA Auto Show, Hybrids, and a Bit on Micro & Mild Hybrids

Posted On December 4, 2009 | by AllenCaron

What makes this year different from all others at the LA Auto Show, which runs December 4-13?  Well, for starters, there are 49(!) hybrids and alternative-energy models being shown (http://www.laautoshow.com/AlternativeFuelVehicles.aspx).  The Auto Show’s website lists the following automakers as showing such vehicles: Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Fisker, Ford, GMC, Honda, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, Mercury, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Subaru, Toyota and Volkswagen.   For once US carmakers were getting a lot of the buzz; people are talking about the Ford Fiesta and the Chevy Volt of course.

Fisker Karma -- being shown at LA Auto Show

And then there is the keynote address, delivered by GM’s Bob Lutz, who said, in part, At GM, we deeply believe that, in an energy-constrained world marked by dramatic growth in developing markets, it is critical that the global automotive industry – as a business necessity and as an obligation to society – develop alternative sources of propulsion based on diverse sources of energy. … Going forward, the automobile industry simply can no longer rely on oil to supply 98 percent of the world’s automotive energy requirements.” (quoted in AutoBlogGreen’s coverage by Sebastian Blanco: http://green.autoblog.com/2009/12/03/la-2009-bob-lutz-keynote-the-automobile-industry-simply-can-n/).

Bob Lutz -- Keynote Speaker at LA Auto Show

At the same time, GreenCarCongress reports that Pike Research has predicted 10-fold growth in lithium-ion batteries by 2015, up from $878 million to $8 billion annually in that period.  That is in spite of the novelty and relatively untried technology involved.  They quote John Gartner, the senior Pike analyst as saying: “Just as Li-ion batteries are relatively untested in real-world transportation applications, plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles are an unknown as a mass consumer offering. ” (http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/12/pike-liion-20091203.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+greencarcongress%2FTrBK+%28Green+Car+Congress%29)

That constitutes quite a leap of faith, especially when at the same LA Auto Show, the “Green Car of the Year” (as named by a panel of experts and Green Car Journal) is not a hybrid but a diesel: the Audi A3 TDI.  According to Wired Autopia, “The A3 diesel is powered by a 2.0-liter direct-injection turbocharged engine that puts down 140 horsepower. It delivers 30 mpg in the city and 42 on the highway.”  (http://www.wired.com/autopia/2009/12/audi_a3_tdi_green_car_of_the_year/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wired%2Findex+%28Wired%3A+Index+3+%28Top+Stories+2%29%29)

Green Car of the Year -- Audi A3 TDI

 At the same time, there may be a growing consensus, at least in Europe, that the bridge from oil-powered to electric vehicles (BEV, PEV, EV, whatever you call them) may well be what are called “micro” or “mild” hybrids, rather than what the public knows as Prius-type HEVs.  That would not sit well with the lithium-ion crowd, because it’s unlikely that micro and mild hybrids will be made using li-ion batteries, which do seem to be the current candidate for pure EVs, although as we reported recently, the Nissan Leaf, set for introduction in 2015, will use a more exotic battery with a new-fangled cathode: lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide, referred to as a Nissan Super Battery.

In fact, most micro and mild hybrids today are using a variation of the traditional lead-acid battery, variously called a VRLA or AGM battery — much less expensive than a comparable NiMH or Li-ion version.  Interestingly the micro and mild hybrids can achieve pretty good improvements on mileage and on carbon emissions, which is the key to the technology.  The EU has carbon limits it will impose, backed by draconian fines on automakers, on 2012 fleets.  Those limits can be reached with full hybrids like those being shown in LA, or with EVs like the US-based privately held Fisker and Tesla vehicles, or the Norwegian Th!nk Electric mini-cars, and a variety of other fairly uncommon passenger vehicles.  The EVs have no carbon emissions at all, so they are a bull’s-eye for carmakers looking to comply with the 2012 bogey.  And, as we reported recently, there are several candidates for no-emission winners among commercial vehicles.

According to some estimates,  10-13 million vehicles will be outfitted as micro hybrids within a couple of years, affording improvements in carbon emission or mpg of up to 15%.  A micro hybrid assembly assists the gas-driven engine only (there is no electric drive train, and they never power the car solo), and some use the friction of regenerative braking to recharge themselves.  On the other hand, they are mostly a drop-in or clip-on technology that is relatively easy for a carmaker to implement.  Mild hybrids, which offer even more efficiency, may follow along behind, but are anticipated to be slower off the block than the micro assemblies.

The sticking point is the energy storage device.  Even “advanced” lead-acid batteries face classic problems: corrosion and sulfation on the poles, slow re-charging, and limited life expectancy.  All the newer, more exotic batteries face cost issues, and some may face safety issues as well.  What is needed is a battery that combines the cost and easy of manufacturing of lead-acid with the better performance characteristics of higher-priced batteries.  The difference may lie with a relatively cheap ultracapacitor: carbon.

Several companies have been developing lead-acid batteries with new, potentially game-changing technologies.  Peoria IL-based privately held Firefly Energy (http://www.fireflyenergy.com) offers its Microcell(TM) foam grid technology.  With a strong scientific background, the Firefly battery is being tested by the US Army and by a small number of others, but does not seem to be in mass production.  Lyon Station PA-based privately held East Penn Manufacturing (http://www.eastpenn-deka.com) , a major supplier of lead acid batteries) is working with Japanese developer Furukawa on an UltraBattery with an enhanced negative electrode that also seems not to be ready for prime time yet.  And New Castle PA-based Axion Power International* (OTCBB: AXPW; http://www.axionpower.com) has introduced its PbC battery technology, being commercialized in a supply agreement with global battery giant, Alpharetta GA-based Exide Technologies (Nasdaq: XIDE, http://www.exide.com/).  The PbC battery may be the closest to the finish line with a multi-patented nanocarbon electrode that maximizes performance and minimizes lead-acid downsides such as corrosion and sulfation, while preserving its price advantage and ease of manufacturing and recycling.   One of these may be the winner of the micro hybrid sweepstakes.

Meanwhile, the King of the Hybrids, Toyota, is showing the 2010 Prius at the LA Auto Show — this time with a Panasonic lithium-ion battery instead of the NiMH batteries of the first two generations of Prius (http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/12/prius-phv-20091202.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+greencarcongress%2FTrBK+%28Green+Car+Congress%29).  Hyundai is showing the 2011 Sonata hybrid, with its own li-ion battery pack (http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/12/hyundai-introduces-2011-sonata-at-la-auto-show-with-4cylinder-gdi-engine-gdi-turbo-and-hybrid-powert.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+greencarcongress%2FTrBK+%28Green+Car+Congress%29). 

At the LA Auto Show it is clearly the Year of the Hybrid, and it is clearly the year of the Asian-made li-ion battery, which must be a bit of a trial for the US-based li-ion giants: Johnson Controls/Saft, Ener1 Inc, and A123 Systems.  Go see all the hybrids, see the future of vehicle transportation — and have fun!

Please do your own diligence before buying stocks — we don’t make recommendations; we just write on interesting companies.

* client of Allen & Caron, publisher of this blog.

One Response to “The LA Auto Show, Hybrids, and a Bit on Micro & Mild Hybrids”

  1. Ryan
    December 29th, 2009 at 12:38 am

    So excited to see some automakers taking initiative on pollution issues. They will certainly lead the charge in changing the face of our global climate issues and be heroes for it. I will be doing my part by patronizing my local St. Louis Nissan Dealer for sure.

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