• Feb 20th 2009 at 1:59PM
  • 14
When Toyota's Prius first hit Japanese showrooms in 1997, I was highly skeptical that hybrids would catch on. Not only was the technology really expensive, I thought the nickel-metal hydride batteries would prove to be the Achilles Heel in the system. Sooner or later you'd be facing an expensive replacement bill, right?
Well, here we are more than a decade later and those batteries are proving to be amazingly reliable. Toyota now has sold over 520,000 hybrids in just the American market. Honda has sold over 300,000 worldwide. Ford is just about to break through the 100,000 mark. The only reason they could sell so many hybrids is that the technology is working exactly like it's supposed to, including the batteries.

While these batteries were designed to last 10 years or 150,000 miles, in many cases they're even doing better than that. Ford brags that some Escape hybrid taxis now have anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 miles on them and are still running strong with the original batteries.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers.

The key to their longevity is that these batteries do no go through deep discharges. They still retain something like 40% charge when the engine comes on to re-charge them. But it may be possible to push that envelope. Though Ford isn't talking, some believe it got such jaw-dropping fuel economy numbers with the new Fusion hybrid by pushing the battery into deeper discharges.

We'll want to keep an eye on that one, because yes, there have been some issues. Toyota ran into copper contamination issues with early batteries in the first generation Prius. And there was a recall of the second generation Prius, but that was an ECU problem that had nothing to do with the batteries. Toyota also has 60 special battery chargers located around the country for recalcitrant batteries that the car just can't seem to recharge. If dealers run into this problem, they can ask for a charger to be sent over. But they don't ask for it much.

Once you get past infant mortality issues, [these batteries] seem to last a lifetime.
Toyota, Honda and Ford are pretty cagey talking about warranty replacements, but Toyota did tell me that for out-of-warranty customers the failure rate is only 1 out of 35,000. That's a pretty impressive number, but it also translates into a parts-per-million failure rate of 28. I know Toyota pushes its suppliers to hit a PPM rate of 10 or less, so as good as it is, I'm sure Toyota is pushing for better durability.

These batteries are behaving like other electronic devices. Once you get past infant mortality issues, they seem to last a lifetime. Just as importantly, the cost to replace the batteries has dropped a lot. The cost of a 1st or 2nd generation Prius battery pack is $2,299 from the dealer. That's just for batteries and does not include installation. But it's a lot cheaper than when the Prius first came out and they cost over $4,000. Honda says the replacement cost for the Civic hybrid batteries is now about $2,000.

This still calls into question how well hybrids will hold up in the used car market. Even though the price of the batteries is dropping, it still costs more to replace them than to go to the junk yard and replace an engine. A used Prius engine, for example, costs anywhere from $700 to $1,500 at a junk yard www.car-part.com which, if you haven't checked it out yet, is a terrific online resource). Some buyers are going to be very wary of well-used hybrids if they think they're going to get socked with a big battery replacement bill.

Toyota sells all its returned batteries at very low cost to... a huge recycling company.
And then there's the question of what happens at the end of their life. Toyota sells all its returned batteries at very low cost to Kinsbursky Brothers, a huge recycling company in Anaheim, California. In fact, Toyota started recycling batteries with them in 1998 when it sold the EV RAV-4 in California. Kinsbursky disassembles the battery pack and shreds and recycles the polypropylene in the casing. The plates and inter-cell connectors are sold to smelting operations that remove the nickel, which is then sold to stainless steel producers. But Toyota's goal is to directly use that nickel to make new batteries.

Honda puts labels under the hood, and under the seat where the batteries are located, which instruct you to call an 800 number at American Honda. They'll pick up the batteries free of charge, and then Honda recycles them in house.

Ford will recycle its batteries with its battery supplier as long as they're under warranty. It expects customers to contact a local recycling center if they're out of warranty.

The nickel-metal hydride battery is about to be challenged by lithium-ion. There are plenty of questions about the durability, reliability and cost of these new batteries. Perhaps they will prove to be as good as the nickel-metal ones. But right now they're much more expensive, and it takes more energy to recycle lithium than it does to get virgin lithium. As a result, there is no market for post-consumer lithium. That's why some automakers, notably Toyota, believe that nickel-metal batteries will be around for a long time to come.


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    • 1 Second Ago
      Rao Nawaz
      • 3 Years Ago
      Yes Bob you are right. I am using NHW20 for my taurus 2000. Its going great for me. The vendor is quite good (http://www.nvpicapart.com/).
      • 6 Years Ago
      In such a hybrid system, is the total miles the car has driven an accurate measure of the battery life when it come to use? Wouldn't the type of driving and conditions, also play into the life of the battery. Just wondering how much the battery system was being taxed, especially in those taxi cabs. I'm not an engineer, just wondering, seems like their apply battery life the same way someone would apply the life of an engine.

        • 6 Years Ago
        ^Taxi cabs operate at slower speeds and brake far more often. I'm pretty sure those batteries are getting a workout.

        Probably still going to cost an arm and a leg to replace though.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I wish some bold automaker would now develop a gas/electric hybrid or an all out electric car that is powered mainly by ultra capacitors, and acts as THE battery/electric source...Li or NiMH batteries I think would be "passe" very soon.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Corey - Battery replacements don't have to be expensive - head over to car-part.com and you'll find plenty of batteries out of wrecked, low mileage cars for about $1000. I saw some for as low as $500!

        I find it a bit misleading that John McElroy could compare the price of an engine through car-part.com which has been pulled from a wreck to the price of a new battery.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Being a diesel fan, I was definitely one of the Naysayers at first. Now I realize that we need both technologies as I've been really surprised at how little I've heard about battery issues as these cars age. My first time in a NYC Escape Hybrid Taxi, I remember thinking these would prove to be a bad investment, never standing up to the bullet proof crown vics' longterm reliability. The Escape was pulling a lot of amps from the battery off of every stop light. Impressive, I'm glad I was wrong.
      • 6 Years Ago

      While the lithium in Li-Ion batteries may not make financial sense to recycle it, Li-Ion battery packs will definitely involve some level of recycling or remanufacturing. When automotive Li-Ion packs no longer meet performance levels, that doesn't mean that 100% of the cells are bad, just that enough cells are dead that the overall performance of the pack has declined. There are still many cells with significant serviceable life. As Li-Ion powered cars proliferate, companies will start remanufacturing battery packs. The bad cells will be removed and replaced with other still viable cells. This is not unlike remanufacturing starters or alternators.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Even better is using it for energy storage and load leveling in power plants. Li-ions provide much higher energy density and even when the cells are not suitable for use in a hybrid or an EV, it can be used for energy storage. You can probably get more money for a used pack that way than recycling and greatly extend the usability at the same time.

        This isn't happening now yet, but I imagine it will, when large Li-ion packs get adopted and reach end of life (car wise) for PHEVs and EVs.
      • 6 Years Ago
      If you get a chance, compare the NHW11 battery to an NHW20 and you'll find the new modules have thicker plastic housing; lower internal resistance; and improved terminals. The NHW11 battery was pretty good but the NHW20 battery is awesome.

      We're also learning more about battery management but this will really be explored with the 2010.

      Bob Wilson
      • 6 Years Ago
      I'm pretty sure all the battery hype was FUD. Engineers, especially the ones at Toyota, generally know what they're doing
      • 6 Years Ago
      The toyota prius, ford escape hybrid, are both similar hybrid systems, not assist.

      hondas system is a total assist system.
      • 6 Years Ago
      John's posts are much more fun to read if you get his inflection going in your head- try it.
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