16 September 2009

Honda to Sell Battery Car in U.S.

By The Wall Street Journal

Honda Motor Co. will likely launch an all-electric car in the U.S. in a few years, according to executives familiar with the matter, as rising interest in fuel efficiency prompts increasing interest in battery-powered vehicles.

According to company executives, the Tokyo-based auto maker plans to make the foray cautiously, and is likely to limit the availability of the new car, perhaps to a region within the U.S. The specific time frame was unclear.

The executives said Honda is expected to display at next month's Tokyo auto show a prototype of the battery car it plans to launch in the U.S. The knowledgeable executives said Honda is also considering selling the all-electric battery car in Japan.

The executives said the planned move is a reaction in part to prospects for tightening requirements in the U.S. for more fuel-efficient cars. They also said the move is intended as a response to growing competition in alternative-fuel technologies from Honda rivals such as Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.

Honda continues to believe that gasoline-electric hybrid cars, such as its Civic hybrid and Toyota's Prius car, have the most promising future among many different alternative-energy vehicles, and said the company will continue to expand offerings of hybrid vehicles.

It has also maintained that battery and other key technologies for all-electric cars are premature. Its top leaders have said that Honda saw only a limited future in pure-electric vehicles, pointing to their insufficient driving range on a single full charge, scarce infrastructure of charging stations in most cities and questions about the safety of lithium-ion batteries that are likely to power such vehicles.

But a number of rivals plan to expand their electric-car offerings, raising the prospect that Honda could be left behind if they take off.

Honda's move follows the launch in Japan earlier this year by Mitsubishi Motors Corp. of a small battery-powered car called i-MiEV. Nissan, meanwhile, has said it plans to start selling a compact battery car, the Leaf, in the U.S., Europe and Japan late next year, while Toyota has said it will start selling an electric car in the U.S. by 2012.

General Motors Co. plans to start selling next year the Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric hybrid car with a small gasoline engine dedicated to charging batteries on board. General Motors is also re-evaluating their Michigan Medicare to help lower costs during their reorganization. By doing so, it will help get the Chevy Volt off the production line and on to showrooms around the U.S. quicker.

Toyota, the world's biggest auto maker by sales volume, appears to be changing its stance on the importance of regular hybrid vehicles such as the Prius. At an industry conference in Tianjin, China, over the weekend, Akira Sasaki, a Toyota senior managing director, said the company believes that mostly electric vehicles known as plug-in hybrids are "the most promising technology" among an array of alternative-energy vehicle technologies to replace gasoline-fueled cars for the near future.

While gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Prius run on a combination of gasoline and internally generated electricity, plug-in hybrids can be recharged via an electrical socket and drive mostly on electricity, with a gasoline engine on board used to charge the car's battery when it runs out of power. Mr. Sasaki didn't say what type of plug-in car Toyota is designing.

Toyota plans to launch a plug-in hybrid car in the U.S., Europe and Japan on a limited scale by year end.

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