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Japan kicks off electric car format war

Prius-ray vs Dominant Volt Drive?

Japanese motor globocorps jockeying for position in the electric car market of tomorrow will unite to present a worldwide standard for automotive Li-ion batteries and related technologies, according to reports. The alliance will include Toyota, Nissan and Matsushita, but Honda - which appears to favour hydrogen fuel cells over all-battery vehicles - has not been named in connexion with the project.

First reported in Japanese business daily Nikkei and picked up by Reuters, the plans will reportedly cover such matters as safety, testing and vehicle charging. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the Japanese government are also said to be involved.

At present, most electric vehicles run on older battery technologies such as lead-acid. However, there are a few vehicles now available - such as the Tesla Roadster - which make use of the greater performance obtainable from Li-ion units like those which power laptops, mobile phones and other portable machines. Many in the motor trade believe that Li-ion cars could be the next big thing, and as with most new technologies those who are first to establish a dominant world standard can be expected to reap big benefits.

Reportedly the Japanese consortium intends to seek certification for their new standards package from the International Organization for Standardization, which could see US car manufacturers beaten to the punch on Li-ion. However, Reuters also reports that American motor behemoth GM - now working hard on a planned plug-in car, the "Volt" - is expected to unwrap a new partnership deal with US utility companies next week.

Meanwhile, others are betting against Li-ion altogether. Honda is now beta-testing its FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell cars in California. Admittedly, the fuel cell stacks in these vehicles are hybridised with a Li-ion battery to provide burst acceleration and hill-climbing, but the company has often seemed to prefer ultracapacitors in this role.

Alternatively, other companies believe in all-battery operation but consider that Li-ion has already had its day. One major drawback for Li-ion is that such vehicles take hours to charge up, ruling them out of heavy use and longhaul applications - and probably even for ordinary drivers who have no garage and so must park in the street.

An alternative is the new lithium-titanate technology, expected to be used in the all-electric Lightning supercar now being built in the UK. This will be powered by Nanosafe batteries from Altairnano of Nevada, and should be able to charge up from an industrial three-phase outlet in a matter of minutes - not too much slower than a petrol car at a pump. If this technology can perform as its makers say it can, today's Japanese Li-ion moves may come to seem no more than an irrelevance.

The Lightning will be on display to the press including The Reg at the British Motor Show tomorrow, so watch this space. ®

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