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Beyond Tesla, a new Toyota/Mercedes-Benz joint venture?

Our previous Kaizen Factor story informed us how the Toyota/Tesla deal indirectly brought Mercedes-Benz and Toyota together. A report from Germany’s Financial Times Deutschland, however, raises the possibility of a closer, more direct connection between the two carmakers, with word of a planned “extensive cooperation in the field of fuel cells for electric cars that could take the form of a joint venture”.

Given the current convergence of carmakers’ urgent need to develop less polluting and more fuel-saving alternatives to the internal combustion engine, the huge costs involved with these alternate technologies and the fact that all this research and engineering is happening against the backdrop of a global economy mired in what has been described as the Great Recession, and it isn’t surprising that purported archrival car companies are collaborating jointly to an unprecedented degree. Archrivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz, along with General Motors, have collaborated on two-mode hybrids, while Toyota’s archrival Nissan and Mazda have both licensed Toyota’s vaunted hybrid gasoline-electric hybrid technology. And, in a not-highly-publicized bit of information, what could’ve turned into a nasty legal battle with Ford for unwittingly infringing on Toyota’s hybrid patents instead turned into a tit-for-tat exchange where Toyota allowed Ford the use of those patents in exchange for Ford allowing Toyota to access its advanced diesel technology.

A Toyota/Mercedes-Benz fuel cell collaboration would be quite natural and logical. As Tim Urquhart, an analyst at IHS Global Insight noted, “The high development costs associated with trying to bring fuel-cell powertrain technology to production means that it is a highly logical step for Daimler and Toyota to try and share the costs and their extensive knowledge in fuel-cell technology.” Indeed, with Toyota having worked on fuel cells since 1992 and Mercedes-Benz starting two years later (and spending a reported $1.23 billion in the process), this pact, if true, would bring two of the major fuel cell proponents together. (The others being General Motors, Honda and, to a lesser extent, Ford, Hyundai and Nissan). Even if this report turns out to be true, expect nothing more than a single-project joint venture collaboration of convenience akin to the Toyota Aygo, Peugeot 107 and Citroën C1 A-segment minicars.

As to official reactions, Toyota issued a tepid “(We have) no new cooperation deal to announce now” denial (but, of course, they might have one to announce later on), while Daimler, the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, was not immediately available for comment.

Finally, in a loosely-related bit of news, Mercedes-Benz has officially signed and entered yet another joint venture, this one with China’s Warren Buffett-backed carmaker BYD to develop electric cars.

Photo from Toyota USA Newsroom

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