Mitsubishi's Electric Car Future
They do things differently at Mitsubishi Motors, especially in the pursuit of a Zero Emissions, eco-friendly car. Instead of quietly and secretly testing a prototype for many years over many miles/kilometres away from the public eye. They have embarked on a very public development program that actively involves companies in the vehicles development. Along the way they are also offering a few lucky journalist and VIP’s (at this years G8 summit they will have 10 iMiEV’s to chauffeur ministers around) the chance to ride and even drive their latest development vehicle.
[See EV World video test drive in the i MiEV electric car]
This is the current public face of MMC’s Electric Vehicle development, but what is the rest of their EV world like? To find this out, I arranged an interview with Tohru Hashimoto the Corporate General Manager of newly formed, Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle business or the MiEV- Promotion Office.
This interview took place on the 20th of May 2008 at MMC’s head office in Tokyo.
Could I start by asking about MMC’s History and background with Electric Vehicles?
We have been involved with Electric Vehicles since the 1960’s. In the 70’s we made a total of 150 Electric vehicles for Electric Power companies- using Lead-Acid batteries. We continued our development of Lead-Acid powered EV’s through the 80’s, but in the early 90’s decided to switch to Lithium-ion. In 1998 we converted our FTO sports car to an EV-to test our Lithium-ion Batteries. This was followed by an EV version of the Eclipse sports car in 2000 –again with Lithium-ion batteries. Also during 2000 we produced the MEEV-II (Mitsubishi Eco Electric Vehicle) an all aluminium space framed two-seat City car. It was a just a concept car –a show model for the Tokyo Motor Show.
I would now like to explain some of our recent history. In the case of MIEV, we started development just three years ago, back in May 2005. In the beginning, we produced the Colt EV MIEV with two rear in-wheel motors. Later the same year, in August, we went to a four individual motors drive system for the Lancer Evolution MIEV (Mitsubishi In wheel Electric Vehicle). The following year, in October 2006 we changed again and this time to one single motor driving through a differential to two rear wheels. This is because the “i” MiEV is very compact A segment vehicle. We found people do not want a high performance vehicle, so we changed from using four separate motors to one single motor drive system. This has brought us to a more affordable arrangement. Also, we do not need the additional development time period to develop an in-wheel system. For we want to introduce such an Electric vehicle as soon as possible to the real market.
So the vehicle that is going to go into production will be an EV version of the current generation “i” city car, or will it be an electric version of the next generation “i”?
For the time being we need to concentrate on the current iMiEV. After iMiEV is launched, we will then need to consider a successor model or other additional models.
Will the iMiEV have a limited production run and be available to selected customers or through the normal dealership?
In the first step, we will have a lease type agreement to a specific customer. This would be to a company for their fleet use. It will happen in the first year of the iMiEV going on sale. Later we would like to have a lease type agreement with individual customers for their own personal use.
What country will benefit first from the iMiEV going on sale?
Japan will be the first country to benefit. Once this is done, then we will offer it to the rest of the World.
Other manufacturers, such as Nissan, have stated that they have recruited a prefecture in Japan to help develop the infrastructure needed to support Electric Vehicles. What are MMC’s plans for an infrastructure for the mass use of Electric Vehicles?
We are involved in two different consortiums. One is organised by METI (Ministry of Economy and Trade and Industry), they are going to make the consortium for Electric and plug in hybrid Vehicle and this will be called the ‘EV town project’. The members are Nissan, Fuji Heavy Industry (Subaru), MMC (Mitsubishi Motors Corporation) and TEPCO and other EV related companies- this is also called the SWITCH project. The other one is Kanagawa Prefecture (South West of Tokyo), were we would like to keep a close contact with the people of Kanagawa as they search for the most environmental car. We are going to be involved in some ‘event’ that they are going to plan, which will involve driving and using Electric Vehicles.
Is this a like an extended trial, that will give you further development feed back?
Let me explain the arrangement within these groups. We have made a contract with Tokyo Electric Company- TEPCO with the iMiEV and we have 10 different vehicles now testing at the moment in Tokyo Electric Park. Kanagawa prefecture will be joining such an iMiEV-testing program. So one type of vehicle will be tested by all three parties, which are MMC, TEPCO and the people of Kanagawa. This arrangement has to be done because we are not able to make a direct contract with any specific local government in Japan. Because many local governments in Japan would all like to benefit from such a test program and we cannot single out just one. So we need a direct partner such a TEPICO or Chugoku Electric Power Co.
This year, 2008, you displayed an iMiEV at the New York Motor show. Does this mean that you are very interested in bringing a small EV or maybe EV’s in general to the American market?
We are going to have some testing with a specific Electric Power company in the California area. The purpose is to find if there is a real acceptability for such a small Electric Vehicle. We need to investigate such acceptability in the USA- this is the first step. However, we are still checking and have not decided exactly where we will begin testing. We are genuinely looking at any area that has a need for short-range travel, inner city use and coping with stop-go traffic. We know California has always been the leader in such new types of transport, but we still have to work out the fine points of where we are going to do our tests. (It has recently been announced that there are going to be at least two electric power companies becoming involved in the tests in America this fall- 2008)
Will you ever consider producing a Bigger ‘European’ size iMiEV- since the present one was designed to fit into the small size Japanese kei Car segment?
Are bigger! This is a tough question- I can only say this is under consideration for us to produce a bigger iMiEV in the future. (It has now been confirmed that there is going to be a bigger model in the future that will be MMC’s entry model)
I would like to talk about your drive technology. At last years 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, you displayed a concept vehicle called the iMiEV Sport. It had both ‘In-Wheel- Motors’ at the front and the existing iMiEV single drive motor at the rear. Is this a direction you are going to take in the future?
I think that In-Wheel Motor technology is the future technology. However, there is no mass market for the Electric Vehicle today -anywhere around the world. So we should make a real EV market – as our first step. And then we need to make some variations for EV's-like a sports type EV or an SUV type EV. But the first step is a sure step to create a market, only after that do we need to look at some variations.
So In-Wheel Motor technology will be the future technology. But at the earliest it is 5 years or even 10 years away before it comes from a major manufacture like our selves. However, we may see it from a specialist car manufacture as a very expensive model being made for sale. This may occur many years before us, but it will not be mass production model. For we at MMC need to concentrate on the Environmental aspect of the car and so our EV has to be a mass production vehicle. A small volume manufactured EV cannot have the necessary effects to produce a ‘Cool Earth’. So we are going to cover the major EV base first before we start to cover what the trend is at the time.
Do you consider an Aluminium Space-frame as an ideal weight saving material and structure for an EV?
An aluminium structure is very expensive material to use. But if there is a big EV market we need to investigate such a special body type and materials like Aluminium and Magnesium. But today, we do not have any special material for iMiEV- later we need to investigate this.
For MMC, is the BEV a stepping-stone on to ultimately the Fuel Cell and maybe along the way to a plug in Hybrid as well?
Our strategy in the first step is the pure EV, such as installing a drive system in a small size car – like an A or B segment car. But some people prefer a larger size of vehicle such as an SUV or Luxury vehicle. I think that a pure EV is not suitable for such a type of big size of car. So our strategy for the first step is to produce a small size car so we can acquire the knowledge on Batteries, Motor’s and Inverter systems. And then and only then can we apply this technology to a bigger size of car, like an SUV.
In the case of a Plug in Hybrid EV – this is our second stage. We do not want a Toyota type of system that still has the engine as the main drive source. Instead at MMC, want to use the battery as the main drive system. We will have a motor, but it will work as a back up- a kind of generator to extend the range. (Note- MMC did produce concept vehicles featuring this kind of technology for the 1993,1995 and 1997 Tokyo Motors Shows and also the 2006 Detroit Motor show. They used normal gasoline engine as a generator and claimed up to a 200km range).
As for Fuel Cells, in my opinion, there is only a very small possibility that this will come in the future. For the infrastructure, the hydrogen station is very expensive to build. It costs about 2 million dollars for one Hydrogen filling station. Also the Fuel Cell vehicle is it self, is very expensive system to design and build. So I think there is only a small possibility that we will do a Fuel Cell Vehicle in the future- I think.
Keeping on the Fuel Cell question. I have read that they are a possible solution to the future energy needs, in providing extra capacity to the grid when you do not use your car. What is MMC’s view on this?
Stationary fuel cells are presently being tested by some Gasoline manufactures for home use. But you are talking about a Smart Grid System. In Japan, many electric companies do not like a smart grid system because the company cannot properly manage the electricity from the customer to the grid. They say they cannot control the amount of power from such a vehicle to the grid. So if there is large amount of power being put into the system, there could be an overload such as a heating up of the cables. But I have heard in the USA and Europe, such a Smart Grid System is liked. However in the case of Japan- there is no possibility. Maybe 10 years or more before they would even consider such a system.
Does MMC believe that there is enough capacity in the worlds grid system to charge all these electric vehicles overnight?
The power companies at the moment are currently generating extra, unused capacity at night. They would like to have a constant demand over the 24 hours to make their power stations more efficient. So they are very interested in EV’s as a solution to this problem and create a demand for over night power. It could also act like a storage system for this generated power. However, there could be a problem if everyone charges their car as soon as they get home from work and as well as switching their Air conditioning and TV!
Still talking about the future, do you feel Electric Drive Systems will eventually change the perception of what a car is? Do you think the car, as we know it will exist in 50/60 years time?
There is some possibility for vehicle variation in the future, but we need to keep to regulations for safety and vehicle use. So basically, in my opinion, construction will not be changed from what we see and use today.
I think vehicles are like flowers and there are a lot of kinds of flowers in the world. One flower can be small or beautiful and another can be bigger or less beautiful- I think cars are very similar. Both of them prefer and do better, in different conditions and environments. Customers also prefer different types of vehicles, such as a small car for a short-range drive or a larger car for a long-range drive. So there are many possibilities for EV usage for various consumer needs. But in general, vehicles are going to downsize and get smaller due to the new emission regulations.
The Japanese market is changing at the moment, as less people are buying cars and the elderly population are increasing in number. Do you see MMC taping into this market with a dedicated smaller EV more suitable for the ‘Elderly market’?
Actually we see the iMiEV as the ideal vehicle for the elderly. We will not go smaller because in Japan they do not like two-seater vehicles. Although vehicles are only two-person occupancy in general, they still want four seats and four doors- I do not know why! A two-door or two-seater is not popular in Japan.
So MMC will not go down in size to a ‘Nev’ type vehicle, which is just a bit bigger and more sophisticated than a Golf buggy?
No we will not, we are a car manufacturer. But in the future I do not know. For if there is a big market for such a vehicle type, we may introduce something! But today- we do not have any ideas to do a ‘Nev’ type of vehicle.
Which Battery Company does MMC have a joint venture with and what is the relationship?
We have a relationship with a company called GS Yuasa and formed a joint venture together with Mitsubishi Corporation to establish “Lithium Energy Japan” in December 2007. In fact, I am a Director of this company, as one of the representatives from MMC on the board. MMC only has a 15% stake in this venture at the moment, but the important thing is that we have collaboration with a Battery Manufacturer and develop a relationship. The Battery firm also gains an experience with a car manufacturer- so this is a kind of win win situation. We need to develop a good Lithium-ion battery for the car and they need information on Electric Vehicles as soon as possible. So we need to do some joint work together and take part in this Lithium Energy Japan joint venture. Therefore we decided on a small investment at first to get experience with this type of Battery.
Many battery makers and car companies are announcing that they are going for the Lithium-ion type of Battery. Do you see this kind of Battery as the ultimate development of Energy storage in an EV?
For the next ten or twenty years, Lithium-ion will be the main type of battery for an EV – I believe. However, it was only a couple of years ago that all manufactures in Europe and the USA were not thinking about the Lithium-ion Battery – so things could still change! But in Europe there are tough emissions targets so they need to develop this kind of technology. In my opinion the first step in EV development is the technology for the energy storage system, which is the battery. In my opinion, the more electricity stored- the better the EV. So today, the Lithium-ion Battery is the best solution. And then, the second step is the power electric components – such as the Inverter or DC –DC converter, Motor and Charger and Controller. Today many car manufacturers are struggling with the first step and in a couple of years time they will get the Lithium-ion technology and then the EV battle will begin. - I think.
What safety precautions have you built into the iMiEV to make sure a Lithium-ion Battery Pack is safe for use in a road vehicle?
I cannot explain the exact details because they are a secret, but the first one is the special material of the positive electrode. The second one is the charge management system, this is quite important. For the Lithium-ion voltage and heat up characteristics, we need to maintain 4.1 or 4.2 volts within the cell. Over that the properties will change- so we need to care about the critical point and then add a large safety margin. This is very important safety requirement.
The third area is the insulation and crash-impact resistance. In each cell there are two layers that are wrapped tougher – one is an insulation layer, which keeps you from having a short. These separators are much thinker than you would find in a non-automotive type of Lithium-ion Battery. We have a metal case around each of the four cells that make up one module and 22 of these modules in one Battery pack. So we have a total of 88 cells within one pack. This pack is then put within a steel tray and this is the protector for the battery, additional there is a main frame on four sides of this pack. So in total we have a metal case for the cells, a metal case for the modules and a metal tray and frame on the outside. So you can call this a kind of triple protection.
When do you start production of your Lithium-ion batteries and at what volume of production?
To match the number of iMiEVs that we intend to build in the first step. Lithium Energy Japan will make 2,000 battery packs per year just for the iMiEV. That is 88 times 2,000 cells, which is a total of 176,000 cells produced per year. We are now considering about the second step- this will depend upon the feedback and demand from the trials in Japan and America.
My two final questions concern the ‘Environment’ – The first one is how different should an Electric Vehicle be to other vehicles in its Environment or should an EV look different at all?
The customer wants some special difference between a normal Gasoline powered vehicle and an Electric Powered vehicle- like the Toyota Prius is looked upon as a special vehicle. Sound wise, we do not make any special sound on our EV. For silence and low noise is the advantage of an EV, so we need to keep the quietness characteristics to make a good EV. Looking wise, in my opinion, I would like to make some sort of identity. So when anybody sees the iMiEV, they know that it’s an Electric Vehicle and the best car for the environment. So we need some identity to be put into the iMiEV- in the future.
Until there is a large EV market, we cannot create a Prius-like stand-alone brand, because this requires a large investment in time and money. Today we cannot do this, but in the future we can. So at MMC need to do it earlier and cheaper, therefore we do not need to make it ‘special looking’ -at the moment. Therefore we will keep the iMiEV -“i” looking for production. However, in the second step I would like some special ‘looking-ness’ in an EV. Even the iMiEV, I would like to a make special identity to it -of the best Environmental car. So everyone will not mistake this vehicle for anything other than an EV. This is what I want – ‘something special’!
My final question is, how is MMC is coping with the present ‘Financial environment’ with the increasing price of Steel and Oil. Do you see this helping the EV cause or effecting its introduction?
Generally people do not want any price increase on any commodities such as Oil, Steel or Food. Though such a price rise is a boost for the EV in one way - and that is travel costs. This is the only good point to come out of the present situation.
If a consumer does 10,000 km as an annual driving distance this is equivalent to spending 150,000 yen ($ 1,424) on Gasoline. However, this could be reduced to only 20,000 yen ($189) per year for the same annual distance, if you used the iMiEV- a significant reduction (86.7%) in travel costs. So the high fuel costs are very good for the EV cause.
But- but we still produce Gasoline powered vehicles, so this is a still a bad condition for us.
So the present ‘Financial environment’ is a kind of double-edged sword for you then?
Thank you for your time – it was very interesting to hear your views and opinions about Mitsubishi Motor Corporation’s Electric Vehicles.
See also Mitsubishi EVs: Past, Present, Future.
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