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The Detroit News

Ford slams Toyota on hybrids

Detroit automaker may run short on parts from manufacturers affiliated with Asian carmakers.

By Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

Proud to be the world's first automaker to roll out a hybrid sport utility vehicle, Ford Motor Co. nurses dreams of selling tens of thousands of fuel-efficient, gas-electric vehicles by offering hybrid sedans and more SUVs.

But Ford faces shortages of crucial parts from components manufacturers -- which are longtime suppliers, and in some cases affiliates, of Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., the leaders in hybrids.

Ford suspects it may be getting squeezed out by its Japanese rivals. With the fall launch of the gas-electric Mercury Mariner, Ford is tripling its hybrid SUV lineup over three years. But its transmission supplier, Aisin Seiki Co. Ltd., can boost deliveries by only 20 percent, to 24,000 transmissions annually.

"Aisin, which is minority-controlled by Toyota, has interesting shareholders they have to answer to," said Mary Ann Wright, director of Ford's hybrid programs research and advanced engineering.

"They have recently been awarded a significant piece of business, and what that has done is limit the number of engineers who can work on my program," Wright said.

For its future hybrids, Ford is scouting for domestic suppliers to reduce its reliance on Japanese firms whose first loyalties may lie elsewhere.

"We must be able to ramp up production and migrate the technology to more models, but we can't do that if the know-how resides abroad," said Phil Martens, Ford's group vice president for product creation.

Right now, hybrid expertise is still concentrated in Japan. Toyota and Honda, the biggest manufacturers of hybrids, have invested billions of dollars along with their affiliated suppliers to develop and build vehicles powered by both electric and gasoline motors.

But demand has surged beyond expectations, with U.S. hybrid sales climbing from fewer than 20 in 1999 to nearly 90,000 last year. All but 5,100 were Japanese brands.

The first U.S. automaker to put a hybrid on the market, Ford launched the gas-electric Escape SUV in 2004. It also is developing hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans, and its Japanese affiliate Mazda is building a Tribute SUV.

Toyota, the leader in the fast-growing segment, sold more than 50,000 hybrids in the United States last year and expects to sell 600,000 early in the next decade.

Officials with Toyota, which owns 23 percent of Aisin, say the company has no desire or motive to limit hybrid component supplies to Ford or any other automaker.

"It's good for us, and good for the industry, not just Toyota, if hybrid technology expands and is more widely accepted," said Dennis Cuneo, senior vice president of Toyota Motor North America.

"We wouldn't stop any automaker, or hurt any competitor's program," he said. "We don't involve ourselves in Aisin's relationship with other automakers."

Aisin Seiki officials could not be reached for comment, but Japanese newspapers report that Aisin is obtaining big transmission orders from Toyota.

Analysts say it's not surprising to see bottlenecks in the supply chain: Hybrid technology is new and costly, demand is surging, and the number of automakers that want to offer gas-electric cars is growing.

"The pitfall of non-Japanese automakers making these kinds of deals for component technology that isn't widely used is the lack of capacity," said Lindsay Brooke, an auto analyst at CSM Worldwide, a Farmington Hills forecasting firm.

"There's a small universe of suppliers of key hybrid components, and many have keiretsu relationships with Honda and Toyota," he said, referring to the Japanese networks of affiliated companies.

Because Toyota and Honda were the first to develop hybrids, "they were able to assign capacity to component suppliers like Aisin, Panasonic and Sanyo," he said. "They're going to get served first."

Currently, Aisin is the only supplier offering hybrid transmissions -- and it will soon be adding Nissan Motor Co. to its list of customers.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn initially dismissed the technology as too expensive, but last year announced plans to build hybrids. Nissan is licensing Toyota's technology.

Ford also licensed Toyota hybrids patents after its engineers realized that the system Ford had developed had features similar to ones patented by Toyota. (Honda developed a different hybrid system.)

The two automakers struck an accord last year that included an exchange of patents: Toyota gave Ford license to use some of its hybrid technology, and Ford gave the Japanese automaker diesel and direct-injection engine technology.

That deal helped Ford accelerate its hybrid program, and it may have saved money by doing business with Aisin. The supplier, which discussed a similar project with Ford's Swedish carmaker Volvo, already had invested in the expensive factory equipment.

But the arrangement left Ford dependent on one of Toyota's keiretsu partners, and the links among keiretsu companies are very close. The chairman of Aisin, Kanshiro Toyoda, is a member of the automaker's founding family.

Ford says it developed the transmission with Aisin and stresses it is not buying Toyota parts -- although whether Ford uses Toyota technology remains a subject of simmering debate.

Aisin supplied the transmission for Toyota's first-generation Prius sedan, but Toyota now produces its own third-generation hybrid transmissions in-house.

"If Ford is serious about a hybrid future, it has to design its own transmission or find its own transmission supplier," said Brooke.

Ford is already lining up new partners. For the Fusion and Milan hybrids coming out in 2008, it is switching the bulk of its battery orders to Delphi Corp. from Sanyo, one of Honda's battery suppliers.

By assigning production to domestic suppliers, the U.S. auto industry will be better able to catch up with Japan's hybrid expertise, and U.S. automakers will exert more control over their production plans.

Troy-based Delphi hopes to produce hybrid batteries not only for Ford but for other automakers too.

"We're very excited about the Ford project, and we'll try to roll that out industrywide," said Delphi CEO Robert S. "Steve" Miller.

Ford also plans to do more transmission building in-house. "We're pretty well land-locked on what we can get out of Aisin. We want to maintain our partnership, but we don't want that to be the only avenue," Wright said.

"You don't dump everyone you're doing business with, but you take the reins," she said.

That's what General Motors Corp. is doing. A latecomer to hybrids, GM teamed up in December with DaimlerChrysler AG to develop gas-electric systems for passenger cars and light trucks and expects to put a full hybrid vehicle on the market by 2007. But GM will build its own hybrid transmission at its Allison unit in Indianapolis.

Detroit News Staff Writer Ed Garsten contributed to this report. You can reach Christine Tierney at (313) 222-1463 or [email protected].
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