Posted: November 5, 2007

Charged Up By Hybrid Batteries: Wright Brings Quest For Greener Vehicles To Johnson Controls

(Nanowerk News) Mary Ann Wright, the former chief engineer for the Ford Escape hybrid, is now leading Johnson Controls Inc.'s effort to become a world leader in development of hybrid battery systems.
Johnson Controls is the biggest seller of lead-acid batteries in the world, but all of the batteries used in hybrid vehicles on the road today were made in Japan.
In her new role, Wright has worked to integrate the technology being developed by France-based Saft with the auto-parts manufacturing experience of Johnson Controls. The joint venture now has three production contracts, with Mercedes, the Chinese automaker Chery and an unidentified automaker, as well as a dozen or more development contracts.
The Glendale company and its competitors in advanced batteries are under considerable pressure.
General Motors this year unveiled a concept car for a plug-in hybrid Chevrolet sedan -- the Volt -- and GM executives quickly pointed to battery development as the key hurdle the industry needs to overcome.
Because of widespread interest in hybrid vehicles and plug-in hybrids as a strategy to reduce reliance on imported oil and address global warming, Wright has also been called to testify in Congress about hybrid battery development.
She discussed her view on hybrid battery development and the role she said the federal government should play in bringing along technology that will boost gas mileage and reduce emissions linked to global warming:
Q. What brought you here to Johnson Controls?
A. Keith Wandell (the company's chief operating officer). Seriously. They were looking to really accelerate the hybrid battery side. And when you look under the hood of your car, there probably is a Johnson Controls battery under that hood -- nine times out of 10.
And so they really had been playing in the hybrid space, and when I was at Ford I saw some real potential.
Keith said, "Look, we need to really get serious about this business in terms of getting the technology commercially viable, setting up the right customer relationships, getting this really set up like a business. Not a science project."
Q. What did you find when you arrived?
A. What I saw was very much like what I had at Ford: incredible technical talent, just waiting for the direction and the momentum to go forward and see the light in terms of production contracts.
The customer relationships were there; what was needed was better integration of our joint venture partner Saft, who brings terrific cell chemistry and battery technology, and marry it much better and more cohesively with what we had to offer at Johnson Controls, which is: We know how to launch vehicles, we know how to make batteries, we have the customer relationships, we know how to manufacture.
We've made a lot of changes, and I will tell you we are busting at the seams in terms of contracts and work that we have going globally.
Q. What's the biggest challenge facing you?
A. The challenge is we don't have scale. We love doing these batteries, but we'd really love to do them at 100,000 quantities, not 5,000 or 10,000. If we do significant quantities, it'll clearly drive down the cost. It'll help us drive improvements in our manufacturing process. We can more rationally develop a supply base. . . .
If you look around, there is no manufacturing infrastructure, no supply base in the United States. All of my materials, all of my manufacturing, is offshore; that's not real good for the U.S. economy in terms of building, creating jobs.
Q. What else should Congress do?
A. We need carbon mandates. That will drive the behaviors, that will drive the infrastructure development.
What's happening now, unlike what you see all over the world, is [an] absence of somebody -- the government -- telling us, "Thou shalt meet these kinds of mandates."
When gas went up to $3 initially you couldn't sell enough hybrids. And then people become desensitized and it'll go up or down a little bit, and guess what? We're back in our SUVs.
There's got to be something else that is driving it.
Q. What about the plug-in hybrids so many are talking about?
A. There's a really interesting dynamic taking place here in the United States: We are absolutely infatuated with the notion of plug-ins. We love them, too, but I think we need to just take a step back and we need to take a look at hybrids and look at it as kind of a journey.
The journey is we have really good hybrids on the road today and we need to have more of those -- they significantly reduce fuel consumption and carbon-dioxide emissions. So as we're transitioning from nickel metal hydride to lithium ion it only gets better -- they're lighter, they're smaller. Weight is the enemy of the vehicle, so as you weigh less, fuel economy goes up and emissions come down.
Q. What will it take for you to be making these systems on a mass scale in the United States?
A. For mass investment, which is what's going to be required here, a couple things have to happen. We're going to have to get contracts, and the automakers are going to need some help from the government as well through a combination of mandates and incentives, because we're really starting from a very disadvantaged position here in the United States -- not from technical capability -- hybrids were invented here, we just didn't take advantage of them.
Q. There are still lots of unanswered questions.
A. Yes, but we were there three or four years ago with hybrids, right? There's lots we can do right now and significantly reduce our emissions and fuel consumption.
We cannot lose sight of the next great things -- plug-ins and [electric vehicles] -- and, by the way, these will enable fuel cells.
But if, over the next 23 years, we put mild hybrids in 25% of our global fleet, which is 700 million vehicles today, that would effectively be taking 64 million units off the road. You would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by more than 320 million metric tons.
That's huge. If you did nothing else, you could do that.
Now, we could do lots more, but what's the barrier? Cost. Cost. And cost.
Q. You have a contract with GM to develop lithium ion chemistry for a plug-in hybrid version of the Saturn Vue. But GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, in touting the nanotechnology battery technology of your competitors -- A123 Systems -- commented that "all lithium ion chemistries are not created equal."
A. He is absolutely right: All chemistries are not created equal.
We have a chemistry that we're going to production in next year. It is safe, it is reliable, it performs great, and we're putting it in vehicles. I would not change a thing with what we're doing there. It works, we're confident in it, and so are our customers.
He's absolutely right when it comes to plug-ins, and that's the solution that we're all out there looking for. Is it radically different from what we're doing now?
I can't tell you, but it'll be different.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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