Another Bad Week for Li-Ions

For car companies developing hybrids, lithium ion cells are the Next Big Thing. More powerful than today’s nickel metal hydride cells, Li-Ions are also lighter and take up less space. If an automaker could develop them successfully for auto use, the prospect of more efficient, better value for money hybrids would stand more chance of becoming a reality sooner rather than later. The problem is that fears over safety refuse to go away.

Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal reported that Toyota may delay using li-ions in the next generation Prius. That’s contrary to what Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe told me in February, but not a surprise. A Japanese newspaper, Nikkan Kogyo, made a similar report in May. The importance of guaranteeing saftey before introducing the new tech has been cited as a factor.

Then, yesterday, Japanese electronics maker Toshiba demonstrated just why car companies are wise to be careful. Another one of its laptop computers, powered by Sony Li-Ion cells, had caught fire. Last year, similar problems cost Sony hundreds of millions of dollars in recall costs.

That shows why Toyota is perhaps wise to take a safety first route—even if it means the extra cost of developing two battery systems—one nickel metal hydride and one for lithium ion—for the new Prius. Still, with rivals queuing up to introduce “clean” diesels in the U.S., proponents of hybrids will hope that the tech is ready before too long.

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