Nissan Shifts Into Higher Gear on Electric Cars

Nissan hopes to make up ground lost to Japanese rivals Toyota and Honda on producing technology for electric and hybrid vehicles.

Nissan Motor Co., playing catch-up in fuel-efficient motoring, has announced that it and NEC Corp. will invest $115 million to mass produce new batteries for electric, hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles. The push into advanced lithium-ion batteries comes as Japanese automakers invest in an array of new environmentally friendly car technologies amid soaring prices at the pump. Nissan has been slower than rivals Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. to embrace petrol-electric hybrids, but it aims to become the industry leader in electric vehicles.

"Our vision for a more sustainable future is clear," said Carlos Tavares, Nissan's executive vice president. "Nissan firmly believes the ultimate solution for sustainable mobility lies in zero emission. Electric vehicles will be a key product breakthrough our industry can deliver," he noted, adding that Nissan is ready to supply the batteries to any company interested in the technology.

The venture, Automotive Energy Supply Corp. (AESC), which was set up last year, plans to build its first battery production line at a Nissan facility in Kanagawa Prefecture southwest of Tokyo. Owned 51% by Nissan and 49% by the NEC group, it will invest $115 million (12 billion yen) over three years in the aim of producing 65,000 lithium-ion batteries per year by 2009. NEC Tokin will invest an additional $105 million (11 billion yen) to build a new assembly line at one of NEC's facilities in Kanagawa Prefecture to produce components for the batteries, which will be installed next year in forklifts in Japan.

Nissan also aims to use the batteries in an electric vehicle to be launched in the United States and Japan in 2010, along with the first hybrid using its own technology. It aims to mass-market electric vehicles to consumers globally in 2012.

The dream of an electric car, which has been around since the time of Thomas Edison, has so far failed to break into the mainstream because of limited battery life that makes such vehicles impractical for most purposes. Lithium-ion batteries are smaller and lighter than the nickel-metal hydride batteries now used in hybrid and electric cars. But automakers have been cautious about their use following problems with lithium-ion batteries for laptop computers catching fire.

"Because this is for automotive applications, safety is imperative," said AESC president Masahiko Otsuka. "We have a lot of tests regarding safety. We have cleared all of them."

NEC executive vice president Konosuke Kashima said his company -- which has been researching next-generation lithium-ion batteries since the early 1990s for mobile telephones -- sees good growth prospects for the technology. "Due to emissions control and rising oil prices, the market (for the batteries) is expected to increase to one million units in 2010 and three million in 2020," he said.

Nissan will conduct a feasibility study with Kanagawa authorities on an electric vehicle project from 2010 that could include an electricity-charging network and tax incentives for users.

Copyright 2008 Agence France-Presse

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