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Why Honda Is Using Lithium Batteries in Civic Hybrid

When Honda recently unveiled its 2012 Civic design, and announced that the new Civic Hybrid would use lithium ion batteries for the first time, we weren’t surprised.

Last March, we reported that the Civic and other Honda hybrids were already in the process of migrating from nickel to lithium. What does it mean for consumers? In theory, more MPG at a lower cost. The change will be incremental, but exactly how much more mileage and at what price is yet to be determined.

The shift is part of Honda’s strategy to make its conventional gas-electric hybrids nearly as affordable as gas-only cars—a goal the company has been talking about for a couple of years.

In addition, announcements from Honda at the Los Angeles Show that it would pursue a robust plug-in hybrid architecture for future cars—and introduce an all-electric version of the Honda Fit—pushes the company in the direction of lithium, and away from the nickel-metal hydride batteries that have powered hybrids since their introduction. Blue Energy Co Ltd, a joint venture of Honda and GS YUASA CORP, will provide Honda’s lithium battery.

Nailing down its hybrid battery strategy is vital for Honda. Last month, Honda President Takanobu Ito says around 10 percent of Honda’s global sales will be hybrids by 2015, and all of its models are built with the ability to quickly adapt into hybrids.

Power and Weight

While similarly sized lithium ion batteries may cost 30 percent more than the current nickel metal hydride batteries, carmakers can use lithium batteries to reduce battery costs by building smaller packs. At the same time, we would expect Honda to try to squeeze out a few more miles to the gallon with the Civic Hybrid, which already boasts 40/43, ranked in second place behind the Prius as the most fuel-efficient conventional hybrid.

Lithium batteries mean less weight and more effective regenerative braking. Hyundai points to the use of lithium batteries for the Sonata Hybrid, hitting showrooms later this month, as the reason it could beat the Ford Fusion Hybrid on weight reduction.

“With the new high-power lithium ion batteries, they can cut them down to their actual energy requirements and still get all the power they need,” said John German, who worked as an environmental engineer for Honda for 11 years and is now a senior fellow for the International Council for Clean Transportation, in an interview.

Looking Forward

There’s another important reason that the Civic Hybrid is going lithium—so the next generation of Civic Hybrid owners don’t go postal.

The Civic Hybrid is the only hybrid model for which we’ve seen numerous customer complaints about critical battery failures. Civic Hybrid owners have reported loss of power or outright pack failures, and have not been satisfied with the company’s fixes. The fact that the Civic Hybrid is the only hybrid model—from Honda or any other hybrid car producer—with a chronic battery issue suggests an issue with the supplier or the system design. The shift to lithium hopefully will put the issue in the rear view mirror.

These complaints, and the introduction of the new Honda Insight and CR-Z hybrid coupe—other small Honda hybrids that potentially compete for sales—help explain why Honda Civic Hybrid sales dropped by 50 percent between 2009 and 2010.

The Civic’s low sales are another reason that it’s a good candidate for the switch to lithium. “The Civic Hybrid is not a large seller,” said German. “So it makes sense for Honda to convert this vehicle first to lithium-ion and gain some real-world experience with it before moving to lithium-ion for the Insight, CR-Z, and other hybrids.”

The entire hybrid market is moving to lithium, save the biggest producer of hybrids: Toyota. The company, at least for the time being, is holding firm to nickel metal hydride for its conventional no-plug hybrids. For example, the preliminary specs for the new Prius V hybrid wagon call for a nickel metal hydride battery pack. Yet, as Popular Science’s Seth Fletcher points out: “Any time we hear Toyota bemoan the state of lithium-ion technology, it’s important to remember that Toyota has in fact built an extensive supply chain for lithium-ion batteries over the past few years.”

“All manufacturers will move to lithium ion for hybrids,” said German. “It’s just a matter of time.” He believes the transition will happen with low-volume models first, and the changeover from nickel to lithium will be complete by 2016 and 2018.

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