Transportation | March 20, 2011 |
Japan’s Tragedy Slows Clean Auto Production
In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Japanese automakers have ceased production at many of their plants. In many places, where they have not stopped production, rolling blackouts to conserve energy are substantially slowing production. On the consumer side, while many are getting back to work in Tokyo, car sales are likely to take a big hit. Will sales rebound later in the year? Too early to tell with much certainty as the answer will depend on how quickly the Japanese economy rebounds.
Toyota and Panasonic’s joint venture, Primearth EV Energy Company, has two key NiMH plants in Japan. Both are currently shut, though one in central Japan is reportedly in operating condition, while one in Miyagi prefecture has manufacturing equipment damage, meaning a longer delay. As a result, the batteries for the popular Prius are currently not being manufactured (though the plant that manufactures the Prius is also closed through at least Tuesday, May 22). This will likely put supply constraints on United States dealers, just as fuel prices are climbing with oil prices. The rollout of the Plug-in Prius in North America could also be delayed or reduced in volume.
For the United States, the biggest effect in automotive terms, will likely be on the electronics used in automobiles. Toyota’s United States production has slowed to conserve parts. Nissan and Honda both indicate that their production in the United States has not yet been slowed, but both have plants in Japan that have reduced production or are closed all together, so the parts flow to the United States has been impacted. Nissan has announced that their already slow delivery of the battery electric Leaf will be slowed even further due to production stoppage in Japan. Additionally, Japan is the largest source of lithium-ion batteries for transportation to the United States and, as such, many manufacturers will likely find their supplies of cells and packs growing increasingly tight.
The bigger challenge overall will likely be the loss of production at component manufacturers and suppliers. Bridgestone Tires reopened their three plants in Japan on March 16, with deliveries scheduled to resume from some of the plants by the end of the week. Plants that manufacture electronics and require sensitive equipment to make precise circuit boards connections are likely to have damage requiring longer shutdowns. Sony and Toshiba have both ceased production at plants which will send ripples through the global supply chain.
At this point, the biggest impact Pike Research is expecting on electric vehicles will be in Japan itself, where lives and economic activity have been tragically and substantially disrupted. How big the disruption will be depends on how quickly the electricity generating capacity is returned and how fast the production lines at battery manufacturers and related electronic component manufacturers can come back online. Without being able to be too precise at this early stage, a decrease of up to 10 percent in forecasted 2011 sales for hybrid and electric vehicles in Japan would not be out of the realm of possibility.
Photo by Los Angeles Times
As an analyst for Pike Research, Dave Hurst studies emerging markets in electric transportation.