The company confirmed a report in Automotive News that Chrysler will test as many as 22 Sprinters in southern California and New York equipped with lithium-ion batteries made by Johnson Controls-Saft Advanced Power Solutions. The plug-ins are expected to have a range of 20 miles before the vehicles must resort to their petroleum-fueled engines for power. Chrysler will experiment with both gasoline and diesel engines in the test vehicles, according to Automotive News.
The announcement was the latest in a flurry of developments regarding hybrid-electric vehicles unveiled at an auto industry conference. Hybrids account for 2% of all new-vehicle sales, but sales are on the rise, and Detroit-based automakers are intent on showing that they are catching up to hybrid leader Toyota Motor Corp.
Earlier Thursday, General Motors Corp. awarded a development agreement to a Massachusetts battery company to help develop the batteries in the all-electric Chevrolet Volt passenger car GM hopes to introduce by late 2010. Johnson Controls and its joint venture partner, France-based Saft Groupe SA, were among the bidders for that award.
"Electrically driven vehicles represent the next great paradigm shift in the automotive industry," GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said Thursday.
Lutz said GM chose A123Systems Inc. because its battery technology, developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appears to be more stable and safer than others in development.
The Johnson Controls-Saft hybrid battery group was among the bidders for the development agreement awarded Thursday, said Denise Gray, GM director of energy storage systems. But Johnson Controls is a GM partner on a different project, a lithium-ion battery for a sport utility vehicle that would be charged when plugged into an electrical outlet.
Johnson Controls-Saft and another supplier - a partnership of A123Systems and Cobasys LLC - will work to supply a system to GM over the next year that the automaker can begin testing in an SUV, she said. No date has been announced for when GM will introduce the plug-in version that could use a Johnson Controls system, but the first two batteries are expected to be delivered to GM next week to begin testing in vehicles, said Mike Andrew, Johnson Controls hybrid director of government affairs and external communications.
Automakers across the industry are interested in the plug-in hybrid concept, he said.
While only two Johnson Controls-Saft initiatives with automakers have been announced so far, Andrew said, "we are working behind the scenes with several other automakers as well."
Johnson Controls has made development of hybrid batteries a key focus of its growth plans. The unit now has more than 100 employees and is nearly finished with construction of a battery-testing facility behind its Glendale headquarters, Andrew said.
With Thursday's Volt announcement, GM said it's moving ahead of hybrid pioneer Toyota on the next generation of hybrids.
The Japanese automaker, now the world's biggest, expects to sell the vast majority of the hybrids bought by North American consumers this year, said Jim Lentz of Toyota. But Toyota has delayed introduction of a hybrid-electric vehicle using a lithium-ion battery by at least a year, and it won't be on the market before early 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
Lutz, GM's outspoken product-development guru, said he's as excited about the Volt all-electric vehicle "as anything I've worked on in my career."
He said he's still committed to having Volts on sale in late 2010 - "though the internal team is a little skeptical" about whether the car will be ready by then.
The announcement means A123Systems and Korean company LG Chem, whose participation was announced earlier, will both work to develop the batteries for the Volt.
Johnson Controls was bidding for the work but doesn't view the selection of A123Systems as a setback, said Andrew, of Johnson Controls. The company is excited that it's a partner with GM on the plug-in SUV at a time when Lutz and GM are signaling lithium-ion batteries as a key solution to help reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil or comply with measures to combat global warming.
GM is planning to roll out 16 hybrid models over the next four years, Lutz said.
Within weeks, dealerships will sell the hybrid version of the full-size sport utility vehicles Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, he said. The hybrid versions of the SUVs will get 40% better gas mileage in the city, and 25% better mileage overall, than the gasoline versions of the big SUVs.