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SAFT Batteries executive
SAFT Batteries executives, Jill Ledger, Francois Barsaq and Philippe Ulrich. SAFT is the world's largest maker of NiCad batteries, which find their way into a wide variety of transportation applications from planes to trains and increasingly now in hybrid trams and buses.

Giving EVs the SAFT - Part 2

Conclusion of EVS 20 interview with senior SAFT executives on the future of battery electric vehicles

By Josh Landess

To Part One

Hybrids and Pure BEVs Available In France

EVW: Aside from the Renault Kangoo, what other hybrids are available in France?

Francois: Renault Kangoo is a pure EV...with a range extender, but not an electric range extender. It has a traditional engine, a small engine, that gives you an extension of range in case the battery is [run-down].

EVW: It's a limp-home feature?

Jill: Exactly.

EVW: Are there any hybrids available to French consumers right now that you’re aware of?

Philippe: From the French car companies, no.

EVW: But you do have the Japanese Prius for sale?

Philippe: Oh yeah, sure.

EVW: In the U.S. people will often ask: “How much is it going to cost me to replace the Nickel Metal Hydride battery in my Prius if and when it burns out,” but as time has passed and those batteries have proven to be fairly durable, I guess that concern is somewhat assuaged.

Jill: One of the models had a big problem with the Nickel Metal Hydride.

Francois, Philippe: The first generation Prius. Yes.

Jill: Because they asked us to recycle the batteries. In Sweden. We have a recycling plant in-house in Sweden.

EVW: What electric vehicles, aside from the Renault Kangoo, are actually available right now to a European consumer?

Philippe: Outside the Renault Kangoo? You have the Peugeot Partners and the Citroen Birlingos.

Jill: A little delivery vehicle.

EVW: I ask about true availability in Europe, because if you ask the hard question here in the United States: “Is it really available?”, the answer is always “No”.

Jill: We heard a lot about the RAV4 [EV].

EVW: It's a great car. It’s available to test drive outside and I test-drove it. It’s wonderful.

Jill: They've stopped now?... They've stopped the promo?

EVW: Oh yes. My 'underground subversive' take, if you will, [a bit of chuckling around the table] is that Toyota had an obligation, as did all the big manufacturers under the California regulations. [They seemed to do sales at or near the minimum to fulfill their obligation], but they did one thing that we liked, which was they sold it and didn’t just lease it to consumers. They sold out quicker than they thought they were going to, I think. And then they stopped it. It was obvious to us California Activists that they had intended to stop it before they actually did it. And then they said there wasn’t enough demand...

Jill: ...That’s what it says on their website...

EVW: ... even though they sold out far more quickly than I think they had budgeted, and it was available only at 25 dealerships in California to consumers. [... ] We’re very happy with them that they sold it. We’re very unhappy with them that they are not making more.

Philippe: I think that’s the main problem of any car company. I mean if you are talking about 2000, 5000 cars, units, for them, it’s nonsense.

Jill: It's a niche...

EVW: ...We don’t want to admit this, but yes…

Philippe: ...And for us it’s a huge business sometimes, but for them it's a loss because they are ready to make 100,000. [At] less than 100,000 cars a year, they can’t make it. It’s a loss.

EVW: That was something Ford said in the Think City situation, they said they were not able, as a company and corporate culture, to do a low production thing.

Do Advanced Batteries Really Need To Cost As Much As The Car Manufacturers Are Saying?

EVW: But I can ask you to help us have some perspective in Toyota’s claims that it costs too much. What does it mean when they say that part of the reason for the high cost is that the cost is too much for the battery? Is that really necessarily true that these advanced batteries have to cost $20,000 or $30,000 a battery pack? Could battery packs be provided for a low production EV, for one or two thousand vehicles a year, that did not cost $20,000 or $30,000.00 for Nickel Metal Hydride, or $50,000 or $100,000.00?

Philippe: It’s a complicated question you have here.

First…because what they have is a 25-kilowatt hours battery on the RAV 4, ok? This is already a large battery. The EVs in France are between 12 and 14 or 15-kilowatt hours, ok?

Beyond that you have also some problems to plug them in. In France you have 16 amps, 220 volt plugs everywhere. In every household you have that. I can plug an EV in France in my house. This wouldn’t be necessarily true in Germany, for instance. This is one of the problems you might have... is that they don’t have any 16 amp plugs. They are limited to 10 amps for whatever reasons.

So come back to your question: They have a large battery, ok? Now if you look (and it’s not a secret because we have indicated it earlier), we are selling the NiCd batteries at roughly $550 to $600 per kilowatt hour, and we are a large manufacturer of NiCds, ok? To do this, we have, with PSA and Renault, worked five years to set up the line, to make the investment, to have an automated line, to reduce costs and we have been able to do those batteries and those costs.

Now if you take consideration of all that, most probably the Nickel Metal Hydride would be sold at $1,000.00 [per kWh], because you don’t have that volume, and if we are able to do NiCd cheap it is because we have a line dedicated to the [EV ?] line. But we have plenty of other batteries, excellent batteries, used for aircraft, for railway, for stand-by applications, and this is our mass production. So we are making the EV line, I wouldn’t say at no cost, but at very low cost, because we are doing plenty of product.

Jill: We’re the world leader in Industrial NiCd for all of the other applications so it’s just an extra niche for us.

Philippe: If you are trying to do the same thing with Nickel Metal Hydride we are not at that stage yet. Nobody’s at that stage yet and that’s part of the problem. That’s where we try to fight, and we have a couple of projects in Europe where we try to find applications – customers that are willing to work with us to use NiMH or Lithium on totally different applications than EV or hybrid or public transport, to grow the demand on any type of application to increase the total volume of this.

EVW: I hate to admit it but it’s making sense....I want things to happen right now, but from the business standpoint maybe it just doesn’t work that way sometimes.

Jill: An EV is almost like the last application for industrial NiCd to come along, and here you’re asking it to be the first with these new [battery] technologies.

EVW: Well, part of how it makes sense is if, for example, you’re already producing many hundreds of thousands of batteries for forklifts then you can transition to also producing them for EVs.

Jill: It's lead batteries for the moment for forklifts. NiMH Legalities

EVW: I’ve been following the legal situation for a long time with Nickel Metal Hydride here in the States with Chevron-Texaco and Energy Conversion Devices having their disagreements with Matsushita, and yet I never hear about SAFT from any legal disagreements about anything. Is there any reason?

Philippe: Well we try to stay out of that. It’s safer and cheaper for us.

EVW: I think it’s a big question that I haven’t heard anybody address, because Toyota (and Honda) are betting so heavily on their hybrid futures.

Philippe: I think the winners are the lawyers.

Japan, China

Jill: There's just one other point, ...talking about the Japanese market with their cars and their batteries. The European market and the American market are totally different. SAFT does not have a huge car manufacturer behind us, subsidizing us. We don't get government subsidies to provide our batteries and we are led to believe that in Japan it doesn’t work like that, that they have huge support from the government. They partner up with the car manufacturers so they’ve got a [inaudible - ?captured] fleet immediately and it’s not the same. Economics are just purely, you know, a jungle in Europe and in the States.

EVW: [...] What I’m learning is you [SAFT] are more on your own than I thought.

Philippe: There were for a number of years from the MITI [Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Japan] a lot of subsidies to the battery companies to develop a number of things. We, SAFT, have sold – [through GSB]-- the technology, which is now labled to GSB, Panasonic and Sanyo, because we helped them 25 years ago to build a battery technology, ...We never had that in France or in the States on in Germany. This is unique to the Japanese markets.

We have very similar situation with China now. The Chinese government has decided to put a massive investment in terms of battery technologies. Now battery companies are flourishing like mushrooms in September.

EVW: I question whether or not they’re following environmentally advisable standards.

Philippe: Being able to visit some Chinese factories... It’s a good question.

Jill: The right question. Because they’re talking “EV” as well, and when you think “EV” you think they’re thinking about “The Environment”, etc., but you need to go and see what’s happening.

EVW: [...] I'm assuming that they are completely committed in every respect to a wide variety of alternative energy vehicles and technologies, much more so perhaps than we realize here in the U.S.... that whatever the answer’s going to be, they’re going to be a part of it. That’s my personal view.

Jill: Battery companies are appearing every day. It’s what we hear. [...]They’re good at DIY [Do-It-Yourself] and we’ve got people who have seen their cars that work. They have cars that work, but it’s made with portable batteries, so I mean they're experimenting. They’re doing all sorts of strange things.

EVW: I think the statistic Bill Moore told me was that they have something like 100,000 students enrolled in Universities in alternative fuel related programs. I mean that’s mind-boggling.

Jill: It’s unbelievable.

EVW: That’s going to be hard to compete with.

Summarizing SAFT, and Public Transportation

Jill: SAFT is a very small, independent, multinational company and we’re a world leader in a lot of small niches like aviation batteries, rail batteries, EV’s and so we’re independent totally. But we’re doing well. We’re not just interested in the car bit, you know. Anything to do with electrified urban transport. All that sort of thing is our target as well.

EVW: Is the pollution in Paris bad these days?

Jill: It's not getting any better. It’s not as bad as L.A.

Philippe: There are some cities in Europe that are even worse, but I think it’s a problem not only of pollution but also of traffic jams If we can have more public transport in general, which are a little bit more fancy to ride for the riders, then that’s one of the key points. There is a growing demand for more public transports where they could use batteries -- hybrid systems. They are talking about trolley buses. Well we have supplied 160 buses in San Francisco with our NiCd batteries. When they need, they can pull down the [engine] and go on the battery in the garage or if there is a detour or traffic jam.

EVW: Yes, for example, Allison is going to be having an EV only mode for the Seattle order.... under 15 miles per hour.

Philippe: Yes. There is a request now for a Canadian city which is asking for hybrid trolleys, and there is some other demand for more hybrid trolleys around the world, mainly in North America and Europe. Now you have also hybrid buses where they are associating with a smaller diesel engine, batteries to provide the peak powers or to run as a ZEV in the garage and so on, and now there are also more trams that would start experiments with no catenary.

EVW: No what?

Philippe: No 'catenary'. The overhead lines. For the city center, the historical places, or where sometime they cannot put the overhead lines, because the buildings cannot support the tension, the weight of those lines. The trees. Sometime you have some problem with some local (inaudible).

EVW: Can you clarify for me what is the precise definition of a tram?

Philippe: A tram is a streetcar. It’s purely a streetcar on rails and you have an overhead line, a catenary. They have one phase on the line and one phase on the ground. There are a lot of requirements in all city centers to remove all those catenaries, where you have a lot of tourists taking pictures, where you can take a picture [for example] of the dome in Milan where you have a rack of a hundred thousand cables. So, that’s one of the concerns.

EVW: So a hybrid tram might help cure their urban aesthetic?

Philippe: Yes. So the battery would do half a mile, max.

EVW: Any interest from Mexico City? And I only ask that because it’s just about the worst example of pollution.

Philippe: They are building a massive metro network. This is part of my presentation. To have a hybrid train or a hybrid tram costs something, and the [extra] cost that we estimate is 15 cents per passenger per ticket, which is not maybe a lot but in some countries they cannot afford it. 15 cents. That's not that much, but each passenger for every ride to have a hybrid tram should pay 15 cents more. [...]

SAFT and Mass Transit In The U.S.

EVW: I realized the public transportation angle and the bus angle is maybe what I’m not as attuned to, but it’s something that seems to be...

Jill: It’s growing.

Lou: Well, we’ve made a lot of progress in sort of niche markets. One of them is the 22 to 30 foot market shuttles, hybrid shuttles, electric shuttles. At the end of this year we’re going to have close to 100 [electric] vehicles in service in the U.S. in all different types of climates and locations.

EVW: Phillippe was talking about the vehicles in San Francisco.

Philippe: Oh yes. They were put in service ten years ago.

Lou: Most of the vehicles, up until the last two years, were located on the west coast really in this corridor from San Francisco on down to Burbank, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, but we’ve made advancements in terms of getting the customer base to understand that our technology works in all these different environments – hot climates, cold climates, so now we’ve got buses in the New England area in New Haven. We’ve got buses in the south in Mississippi and Alabama, in Georgia, in Florida.

The majority of the buses that are in service right now are electric, but in the last - I want to say - 12 months to 18 months, there’s been a big push to go hybrid. It’s moving towards hybrid almost exclusively. There are certain communities and certain areas that obviously want electrics and will stay with electrics. They have the routes that support that type of vehicle, but for the most part right now everything’s swinging towards hybrids.

EVW: So you are already 'there'.

Lou: Yes, we’re already there, but again, only in the niche markets.

EVW: Of the excellent buses upstairs, There is one, for example, it’s all-electric. They said for years the Hollywood studios would use something like that. It’s a NiCd with fast charging capabilities. One mile per minute they claimed they would add to their range when they charged quickly. There were very few buses upstairs that I didn’t like, but all of them were interesting and that was the only all-EV bus

Lou: If it’s a NiCd, it’s us. [much discussion]...Yes, it has to be an E-bus. They had buses in Burbank going to movie studios. They had a seven-mile route but it took employees and took visitors from movie studio to movie studio.

Times Article Viewed: 11540
Published: 20-Mar-2004

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