Three Things About A123 Systems

Gary S. Vasilash

As the “I told you so’s” ring loudly with the announcement of A123 Systems filing for Chapter 11, as though this is still another indication of the technological failure of battery-powered vehicles, here are some other considerations that could be taken into account.

1. Automotive is brutal. Let’s face it, A123 Systems was predicated on the development of Nanophosphate® lithium iron phosphate batteries. At MIT. While there are successful companies that come from MIT, and are successful in the auto industry—think only of Bose—one could make the case that to be an automotive supplier is to have a whole set of skills that have nothing to do with academia or nanoscale chemistry. It ain’t pretty.

A123 Systems Livonia

An A123 Systems manufacturing facility in Livonia, Michigan.  Does the U.S. give up on advanced tech and let the Chinese do the manufacturing?

2. Automakers aren’t stupid. Sure, they make some clunkers. But by and large, the industry is gotten better in terms of understanding things like advanced technology. With customers including BMW for its batteries, does anyone really think that the tech is inherently un-automotive? A note by Peter Nesvold and Elain Kwei of Jefferies & Co. is worth quoting at some length” “”A123 raised $370 million in a 2009 IPO at a time when many market projections for electric vehicles (including plug-in-hybrids or PHEVs) were largely based on a target of 1 million cars by 2015. The reality is the EV and PHEV markets have developed more slowly than the forecasts of several years ago, and A123 also faced significant competition from large Asian battery manufacturers. . . .”

3. Automotive suppliers aren’t stupid. Those who survived the recession know very well that making money is Rule One in the auto industry. Johnson Controls, a superb supplier, is planning to purchase A123’s automotive assets. (And let’s hope that Johnson Controls gets it, because Chinese company Wanxiang, which had made a previous bid to invest in A123, may make a counter. Wouldn’t the technology developed in the U.S. be best owned by a company based in the U.S.? Let’s face it: while the market may be developing slowly, it will become a market. Does the U.S. want to become dependent on producers who don’t necessarily have its best interests in mind? Haven’t lessons been learned by the dependence (decreasing, but dependence nonetheless) on foreign oil?