Energy Department initiatives help drive innovation in the Motor City

Growing up, I always had a passion for cars. From working in my father’s maintenance shop as a kid to restoring classic cars, the American automobile always held my attention.

It was the fulfillment of a dream to follow in my dad’s footsteps to Ford Motor Co., where I worked on the leadership team. As I prepared to move to Dearborn, there were two things I heard about, and I could not wait to experience: the Woodward Dream Cruise and a Miller’s Bar burger. Each lived up to the reputation.

During my time at Ford, I worked on advanced automotive technologies such as hybrid cars and autonomous vehicles and completed a rotation on the factory floor. And while it has been several years since my days at Ford and my last Miller’s burger, the department I lead as secretary of energy continues to stoke my passion for cars through technological innovations driven by our national laboratories that keep America on the cutting edge of the automotive industry.

With electric vehicles set to play a key role in the industry’s future, a crucial subject we are working on is next-generation battery development and energy storage. The U.S. Department of Energy is investing millions of dollars through its Vehicle Technologies Office on applied R&D on innovative ideas to revolutionize the battery market. Our work is built on a pedigree of success, including foundational research in the development of the lithium ion battery that led to two DOE researchers winning the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 2019 Global Energy Prize.

Last year, to ensure the sustainability of the battery supply chain, the department established a Battery Recycling Center aimed at developing cost-effective processes to reclaim and recycle critical battery materials, such as cobalt and lithium, to recover as much economic value as possible from spent lithium ion batteries. The goal of this effort is to develop technologies to profitably capture 90 percent of all lithium-based battery technologies in the United States.

In January we announced the launch of the Energy Storage Grand Challenge, a comprehensive program to accelerate the development, commercialization and utilization of next-generation energy storage technologies and sustain American global leadership in energy storage. The vision for this project is to, by 2030, create and sustain global leadership in energy storage utilization and exports, with a secure domestic manufacturing supply chain that is independent of foreign sources of critical materials.

Each of these projects will help the American auto industry solve the challenges facing electric car battery development and keep us technologically ahead of global competitors.

DOE is advancing critical work on a broad portfolio of advanced transportation technologies, including electrification, advanced engines and fuels, lightweight materials, hydrogen, energy efficient mobility systems and integrated systems analysis through a collaboration called U.S. DRIVE (Driving Research and Innovation for Vehicle efficiency and Energy sustainability). Working in concert with industry partners, U.S. DRIVE ensures that DOE remains focused on early-stage research needs that, if successful, will be transformative to industry with potential pathways to commercialization.

Since petroleum-based fuels will continue to play a major role in the automotive industry for years, DOE is supporting fuel and engine research to help make car engines more efficient and their emissions more environmentally friendly.

Through the Co-Optimization of Fuels and Engines Initiative, nine of our national labs are coordinating R&D on biofuels and their use with high-efficiency, low-emission vehicle engines. The expectation is that this multiyear project proves biofuels are a viable future fuel source for American automobiles.

Innovation and ingenuity born in Detroit gave our nation one of the most significant developments in automotive technology: the mass production of vehicles that allowed the average citizen to own a car. Since then, innovation has driven the industry to produce vehicles that are safer, more fuel efficient and more advanced. The Department of Energy is proud of our role in that history, and we look forward to working with the Motor City to advance the technologies of the future.

The department is fostering work on a range of advanced technology initiatives that stand to benefit Detroit innovation in the future.

Japan’s big three step up crossover, electric shift

Japan’s big three automakers are dropping models and refreshing their lineups as the marketplace shifts to more crossovers and greater electrification looms.

Among the disappearing models: Honda’s Fit and Civic coupe, the Toyota Yaris and possibly Nissan’s once segment-leading Versa.

But a new generation of products is in the wings. Nissan will introduce its second electric vehicle, the Ariya crossover, in 2021, while Infiniti is preparing to revitalize its lineup with a series of launches.

Honda has two new EVs in the pipeline through its collaboration with General Motors, while Acura is in the midst of several redesigns and product freshenings.

Toyota will offer a subcompact crossover as well as a radically redesigned Mirai fuel cell vehicle. Lexus, looking to attract younger buyers, will focus on improving its light trucks.

Cutting back car lineups sensible — to a point

Automotive News‘ annual deep dive into the industry’s vehicle plans over the next few years, the Future Product Pipeline series, shows an accelerating trend: the culling of car models and variants from automakers’ U.S. lineups as brands simplify their offerings in a bid to improve efficiency while attempting to satiate consumers’ myriad tastes.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the following examples:

  • Honda is discontinuing the Fit subcompact, Civic coupe and manual-transmission Accord cars; Toyota is pulling the Yaris subcompact sedan and hatchback out of this market.
  • And as we reported last week, Mercedes-Benz — which has a lineup as large and varied as any automotive brand — plans to cut seven coupe and convertible variants.

Consumer tastes change, certainly, as do the economics of a business with high upfront capital requirements for development, certification and production. Just as in nature, when automakers cull the weakest among the herd, the result is usually a stronger herd. With COVID-19 putting additional financial pressure on automakers and retailers that were already wrestling with striking the right balance among demand, inventories, pricing and incentives, slimming the car lineup is a logical step. No dealer wants to be saddled with some low-volume coupe variant that’s collecting cobwebs on the lot when American consumers have a voracious appetite for crossovers and SUVs.

The culling within German luxury brands is warranted. Their diverse product offerings in North America are largely an unintended side effect of consumer desires here to buy off the lot instead of ordering, as happens in Europe. Dealers may feel compelled here to stock multiple configurations of the same coupe, for example, when one or two would suffice.

But the strategy is more dangerous when it comes to mass-market brands eliminating their least-expensive models.

Subcompact car sales have taken it on the chin as an attractive variety of practical subcompact and compact crossovers entered the market. But the axing of subcompact cars also raises the entry point for each brand by several thousand dollars, a move that will keep some first-time buyers off the new-vehicle lot and limit the opportunity to build a lifetime of brand loyalty. That is a dangerous game, indeed.

Akio Toyoda on software, the pandemic and successions

TOKYO — Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda will create a trio of companies tasked with developing software for the next generation of smart cars. In detailing the plans, Toyoda said old business strategies no longer guarantee success in an industry being rocked by technological upheaval. Toyoda spoke here last week. These are edited excerpts.

Q: Why do automakers need to shift to making software?

A: In the old world, we are the hardware manufacturer, and all we need to do is buy software from someone else. But we must make continuous improvement and upgrading. But once you leave that to somebody else, you are allowing other people to achieve that upgrading. If we decide to develop and produce our own engines and our own software, we can use that for product improvement and create value. For that purpose, we need to pursue software first.

Why did you invest your own money to create Woven Planet?

Whenever new businesses or industries were born, it was the capitalists or entrepreneurs who had the strong will to make it happen. But nowadays in Japan, there are few true individual capitalists, personal investors. As president of Toyota Motor, and also as one individual investor, I wanted to demonstrate my commitment and will.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your plans?

Today, even in a COVID-19 world, in some areas we are pressing hard on the accelerator pedal. This is not my decision alone. It is supported by others and made in consultation with their opinions. And that allows me to say I’m optimistic.

What will be the relationship between Toyota Motor and Woven Planet?

Both are like mirror images of each other. They will pick and choose from each other. Toyota Motor can provide the opportunity for Woven City to do it on its own financial means. It’s a partnership, and at least it can sow the seeds for future change.

How do the Woven companies play into your plans to eventually hand off to a successor?

When I became president, the only thing I could devote my time to was dealing with the consequences of the past. I spent 200 percent of my time and energy on that. I felt that situation should be avoided when I pass the baton.

So if I were to receive the baton from my predecessor, this is the way I’d like to receive it. That’s what I’m doing right now, for the future.

Nissan focuses on powertrains, adds EV

Editor’s note: This story is part of the annual Automotive News “Future Product Pipeline” series.

Nissan is in the midst of a product overhaul as the brand attempts a larger business reboot in the U.S., its second-largest market.

The product offensive, which will reduce the average age of Nissan vehicles from more than 5 years currently to nearly 3, will result in updates to about 70 percent of the portfolio by mid-2021.

“We are in the process of massive renewal of our U.S. product lineup,” Nissan Motor Co. COO Ashwani Gupta told Automotive News this year.

Nissan has already redesigned or updated most of its sedans. The brand will now retool the critical crossover lineup, starting with its top seller — the Rogue.

Next year also will mark Nissan’s entrance into the emerging electric crossover market, as the automaker will introduce the 300-mile battery-powered Ariya.

But Nissan’s product renaissance, planned years ago, was thrown a curveball by the coronavirus pandemic. Shelter-in-place orders and a pandemic-triggered economic recession upended vehicle development schedules and customer demand.

The headwinds could complicate Nissan’s U.S. business pivot. But the company is adamant that new products will “bring momentum in our U.S. market,” Gupta said.

Versa: Nissan’s entry-level subcompact received a redesign for the 2020 model year. It is now powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with 122 hp, up from 109 hp. A freshening is expected in the second half of 2022. But the nameplate may not continue in the U.S. beyond its current life cycle as demand for small sedans wanes.

Sentra: The compact sedan was redesigned in January. The 2020 Sentra is powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 149 hp, up 20 percent from the previous generation’s 1.8-liter engine. Riding on a new platform, the model introduces a new independent rear suspension, which Nissan said improves ride and handling and fuel economy. A refresh is expected in early 2023.

Altima: Redesigned last year, the midsize sedan now sports all-wheel drive and Nissan’s newly developed variable-compression turbo four-cylinder engine, a powertrain that provides quick acceleration and improved fuel economy. A freshening is expected in 2022. The next generation of the volume sedan could arrive with an electrified variant in 2025.

Maxima: The flagship sedan, which was freshened last year, should be replaced with an electric vehicle inspired by the IMs “elevated sports sedan” concept. That EV is slated for the second half of 2022.

370Z: Nissan has teased a next generation of its iconic sports car, which has not been redesigned since 2009. The redesigned version, which could carry a different badge, should arrive in the first half of 2022. It is expected to be powered by a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6, similar to the engine used in the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400. The design likely will feature retro styling elements that hark back to previous-generation Z’s.

GT-R: Nissan is working on a redesign to its halo sports car, which could appear in 2023. Nissan is considering a performance-oriented hybrid that would utilize a kinetic energy recovery system similar to the kind it uses in its Le Mans race cars.

Leaf: Nissan launched a longer-range version of the Leaf early last year, powered by a 62-kilowatt-hour battery pack that delivers 226 miles on a full charge. The Leaf should get a redesign in the first half of 2023. The next-gen model could be built on a new EV platform shared by Nissan’s alliance partners, Renault and Mitsubishi.

Kicks: Nissan’s entry-level subcompact crossover, which went on sale in the U.S. in 2018, shares a platform with the Versa. The Kicks is powered by a 1.6-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine that knocks out just 125 hp.

A refresh is planned for the first half of 2021 that includes updated front and rear fascias. Nissan unveiled the Kicks e-Power in Japan in June, but the automaker hasn’t said whether that gasoline-electric engine system will be offered as an option in the U.S. However, engineers and product planners have said the company intends to eventually introduce a more high-powered version of e-Power stateside.

Rogue: Nissan’s bestseller will be redesigned for 2021, expected to arrive this year. The coming Rogue is based on the Xmotion design concept vehicle shown in 2018; it will have a similar footprint but offer more cabin space. It features a 2.5-liter inline four- cylinder engine that delivers 181 hp, an increase of 11 hp. The compact crossover will receive an updated suspension and steering system to improve driving performance and reduce cabin noise. A freshening is expected in 2023.

For the Rogue Sport variant, Nissan this year updated the interior and added standard safety technology and driver-assist technology. But going forward, the Sport, which came to market in 2017 from a different global platform with a different engine, could be dropped. The model is getting lost between the Rogue and the Kicks, according to dealers.

Murano: The midsize crossover got a face-lift for the 2019 model year to stay relevant in its crowded segment. But the Murano, powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 engine, is aging. A redesign should arrive in 2022. The next-gen Murano will ride on a revised version of Nissan’s D platform and could be powered by a turbo four-cylinder engine.

Pathfinder: The midsize crossover is up for a redesign in the first half of 2021. The next Pathfinder will ride on the revised D platform and carry over the current 3.5-liter V-6 engine, but it will dump Nissan’s finicky continuously variable transmission in favor of a nine-speed automatic transmission. The crossover will see a major exterior and interior redesign. “Nothing is recognizable from the current version,” said a source familiar with product plans. “There’s not one bit of that car that would remind you of the current Pathfinder.”

Armada: The large SUV is in line for a freshening early next year. The Armada is built on Nissan’s global Patrol platform. The refresh includes a new front and rear fascia that matches the recently updated Patrol, which is not sold in the U.S. The interior will include a larger center display, while the powertrain should carry over. Expect a redesign in 2024.

Ariya: The new electric crossover, Nissan’s second EV, will arrive in late 2021 as one of eight new battery-powered models that are planned globally.

The Rogue-sized EV will offer up to 300 miles of driving range and be built on a new architecture. The exterior design is highlighted by prominent front fenders, rear fender flares, superslim LED headlights and a steeply raked C-pillar. The crossover ditches the conventional grille for what Nissan describes as a “shield”; in driving mode, it is illuminated to reveal Nissan’s V-motion design signature.

The crossover will debut new technologies, including a twin electric motor, an awd system and the next generation of Nissan’s hands-off automated driving system.

Frontier: The next Frontier midsize pickup is expected to arrive in stores in the second half of 2021, receiving its first major redesign since 2004. The Frontier will feature a 3.8-liter direct-injection V-6 engine that delivers 310 hp and a new nine-speed automatic transmission. The redesign has been described as “futuristic,” engineered with a sportier profile and SUV-like interior conveniences.

Titan: The full-size pickup jettisoned its diesel variant and received a freshening this year. The 2020 Titan received crossover-quality safety features and technology along with a utility-grade powertrain. Under the hood, the model has a tweaked 5.6-liter V-8 engine that delivers 400 hp. Nissan gave the Titan XD more frills and horsepower and a new transmission as the company attempts to spur more demand for its largest pickup.

The long-term future of the nameplate, however, is unclear due to its inability to compete against the segment’s U.S.-badged leaders. In the first half of this year, the Titan captured just a 1.2 percent share of the full-size segment.

NV commercial vans: Nissan plans to discontinue production of its NV cargo and passenger vans in the U.S., sources told Automotive News.

China’s Xi Jinping, the man on the other side of the trade table

President Xi Jinping is widely seen as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.

That has also made him one of the most influential people in the global auto industry — a man whose policies roil the world’s biggest market and whose vision of transportation shapes what automakers and suppliers from Detroit to Stuttgart are planning in order to compete in China.

He also is President Donald Trump’s No. 1 adversary in the U.S.-China trade war, in which the U.S. seeks to bring down its trade imbalance with Xi’s nation.

But Xi, 67, has a freer hand in China than his American counterparts do in Washington.

Xi is head of state, head of the Chinese Communist Party and head of the military, and he chairs a powerful planning team known as the Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs.

That group sets the direction for China’s economy and its specific key industries, such as automotive.

China already was booming as a car market when Xi became president in 2013. But in recent years, the government concluded that China’s economy was growing at a huge cost to the environment.

To correct that, Xi pledged to shift the direction of the economy from “quantitative” growth to “high-quality” growth, putting greater value on technology and sustainability.

Under Xi’s direction, that prompted a mandate for electrified vehicles and reduced vehicle emissions.

Xi has proclaimed that electric vehicles and other new-energy vehicles are essential to transforming China into a country with strong automotive technologies.

He also declared an imperative to eradicate poverty and make national financial reforms — both of which point to job growth and local manufacturing.

In the summer of 2020, it is far from clear who will be in the White House next year to negotiate with China. But in 2018, China amended its constitution to give Xi something no American president has: It eliminated presidential term limits.