Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Toyota Learns the Lesson on Rare Earths

GM, Ford, et al., might want to take some notes here. Japanese manufacturers have had enough of being jerked around on rare earth supplies thankyouverymuch, and they are moving on now.

Toyota Motor Corp., the world's largest seller of hybrid autos, is developing an alternative motor for future hybrid and electric cars that doesn't need rare-earth minerals at risk of supply disruptions.

Toyota engineers in Japan and the U.S. are working on a so- called inductive motor that's lighter and more efficient than the magnet-type motor now used in its Prius, said John Hanson, a company spokesman. Research is at an "advanced stage," he said, without saying when vehicles with the motors may be sold.

"It's a long-term approach," said Hanson, who is based at Toyota's U.S. unit in Torrance, California. "When you're looking at a geopolitical issue like rare-earth supply, that can lead to developments that create very good solutions."

The motor could help cut Toyota's dependency on rare-earth materials from China, which controls more than 90 percent of the global market for the metals. China's government cut export quotas for the first half of 2011 by 35 percent last month. That follows a 72 percent reduction in the second half of 2010, causing the price of some of the metals to more than double.

The story goes on to explain that Tesla already has motors that don't use rare earths, and they will supply Toyota with motors for a new SUV that goes on sale in 2012. Toyota is also working on a magnesium-sulfur battery that can hold twice the capacity of lithium-ion cells - another area to keep an eye on as we get our fledgling battery industry off the ground here in Michigan.

I'm not sure why the rare earths story originally caught my eye, but now it seems I can't get away from it. From a NY Times story that tells of gangs running illegal mines in China, complete with murder, mayhem, and environmental destruction, to an NBC story from Richard Engel that tells of how the wildlife of the Serengeti might be at risk due to the Tanzanian government's plans to build a commercial road to transport rare earths from the Lake Victoria region to sell to China - it's popping up everywhere on my radar.

President Obama meets with President Hu Jintao of China at the White House on Wednesday, and the NY Times whistles past the graveyard in an op-ed this morning that urges the President to tell the Chinese to "behave", or they won't get any respect. Seriously? Respect from whom? Since the Chinese are busy cleaning our clocks when it comes to debt issues and their surging economic development, it's doubtful they will listen to any finger-wagging from us as they laugh all the way to the bank. Diplomacy is always nice, but we hardly have the upper-hand here.

Respect will come if we make efforts to move away from our glaringly apparent over-dependence on Chinese goods and materials such as rare earths. Until then, it's hard to see where we have any leverage at all. Complaints to the WTO might help, but certainly will take too long and will fall short of their desired effect.

Take a tip from Toyota, and let's get out from being under the threat of this constant economic manipulation coming from China. I know I probably sound like a flaming old-school (real) conservative when I say these things, but it's only common sense that we don't trade a dependency on foreign oil for a dependency on foreign... everything.

UPDATE: The AP has a good story on currency manipulation and how that relates to manufacturing...

America's trade deficit with the world, estimated at $500 billion last year, would drop by up to $120 billion if China let the yuan rise 20 percent over the next three years, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank.

Such a change would create about a half million U.S. jobs, mainly in manufacturing, which typically pays above-average wages, the institute's economists are forecasting.

... and tells us of bipartisan noise coming from Congress on legislation to address some of these issues. Good to see.