Lithium Economics

What’s Behind GM’s Decision to Drop Li-ion Batteries from its 2014 Malibu Hybrid?

Oct 13, 2013

GM’s decision not to use Li-ion batteries in its 2014 Malibu hybrid has nothing to do with a displacement of lithium by lead. It pertains to ambivalence of its electrification strategy.

To many, the announcement a couple of days ago by General Motors (GM) that its 2014 Malibu (mild) Hybrid will no longer carry Li-ion batteries has come as a surprise.

As stated in a recent Wall Street Journal article,

“GM's move highlights the challenges auto makers and manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries are facing as they try to push electric vehicle technology into mainstream, high-volume cars. GM and its rivals originally viewed lithium-ion batteries as the foundation of hybrid power systems that could substantially improve the mileage of gasoline-fueled cars.”

“GM's move is a blow to the lithium-ion battery industry, which is already suffering because of lack of demand for electric vehicles. Toyota Motor Corp. 7203.TO +0.94% on Wednesday said it is cutting the starting price of its 2014 Prius Plug-in hybrid to $29,990, more than $2,000 less than the 2013 model. Through the end of September, Toyota had sold just 7,974 Prius plug-ins, down 2.6% from the same period a year ago.”

However, this contribution is completely out of focus. For one thing, GM’s decision is consistent with the motor giant electrification strategy laid out in November 2012 which essentially focuses “on the plug” while relegating hybrid options “to point solutions for specific customer needs”.

In this connection, as a first approximation, one shouldn’t be surprised if, for different reasons, GM’s e-assist mild-hybrid system didn’t work in this case. But, in the final analysis¸ it is important to remember that GM does not really seem to be interested in all-electric cars which may explain why lithium is not on top of its technological agenda.

For another, not using Li-ion batteries in a mild hybrid such as the Malibu doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a blow to the lithium-ion battery industry because mild hybrids are only a negligible segment of the hybrid car market, both in terms of number of models as well as amount of sales.

In addition, the author’s idea that there’s lack of demand for electric vehicles is a bit odd considering that in another part of his article he does concede that Tesla Motors, the most innovative all-electric car maker of all times, “has reported strong demand” for its Model S sedans.

Likewise, Toyota’s last move to cut the starting price of its 2014 Prius Plug-in hybrid is no indication of lack of electric vehicle market whatsoever but rather a strategy to face competition.

Lastly, GM and Toyota’s ambivalence in their electrification strategies may be related to their intention to continue betting on fuel cell electric vehicles in the coming future. This not only explains why they both are skeptical of all-electric cars, but also that they have one enemy in common: Tesla Motors.

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