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Recharging the U.S. Auto Industry

By David Smith - Updated Apr 5, 2017 at 7:56PM

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A new battery consortium could give American automakers a welcome jolt.

Even front-page, single-column attention from the Wall Street Journal hardly seems enough for a development this big. Fourteen tech companies of various sizes will join forces in an effort to reduce the gap between the United States' lithium-ion battery technologies and Asia's.

Don't be fooled, Fools -- I believe we're in a temporary respite between last summer's $4.00-per-gallon gasoline and future prices that could go even higher. So I refuse to trivialize the importance of domestically based advanced battery technology. That capacity will soon be crucial to our ability to turn out plug-in vehicles, and perhaps save our automakers in the process.

The Journal reports that the battery field is dominated by the likes of Japan's Panasonic (NYSE:PC). Meanwhile, China is building more than four dozen advanced battery factories; none are currently in the works in the U.S.

The new U.S. consortium is being patterned after Sematech, a group formed in Austin, Texas, in the late 1980s to trim Japan's then-current lead in computer chips.

The nascent battery group will include such companies as 3M (NYSE:MMM), Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI), FMC (NYSE:FMC), and EnerSys (NYSE:ENS), a Pennsylvania-based maker of industrial electrical equipment. And I wouldn't be surprised if it were ultimately joined by General Electric (NYSE:GE) and -- believe it or not -- ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), each of which has a history of working on battery technology.

The group hopes to obtain $1 billion in federal aid to build a plant and move the project along. But given Uncle Sam's recent propensity to toss much taller dollars at the least competent members of our economy, and this particular project's apparent importance, a mere billion bucks seems like pocket change. The energy-security act that consortium is planning to tap allots as much as $7 billion in guaranteed loans for domestic advanced-battery plants, and the proposed plant is expected to cost between $1 billion and $2 billion, so the grand total could very well be much more.

How should Fools who share my enthusiasm for plug-in vehicles invest in light of this news? For starters, I'm a fan of 3M, a member of the Motley Fool CAPS five-star contingent, which turned in stellar results in its most recent quarter. Beyond that, I'd keep an eye on four-star EnerSys, perhaps the purest electronics play in the group.

And while we're at it, let's hope the government seeds this new effort with far more than a billion or two. To twist a phrase that's been applied to too many recent and expensive fiascos, this effort just might be too important to fail.     

Further fully charged Foolishness:

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does, however, welcome your questions, comments, or queries. 3M is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool's disclosure policy wonders whether the Energizer Bunny will be out of a job.

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Stocks Mentioned

3M Company Stock Quote
3M Company
MMM
$147.43 (-1.88%) $-2.83
Johnson Controls International plc Stock Quote
Johnson Controls International plc
JCI
$58.53 (-0.80%) $0.47
FMC Corporation Stock Quote
FMC Corporation
FMC
$112.99 (-0.68%) $0.77
EnerSys Stock Quote
EnerSys
ENS
$70.35 (-1.48%) $-1.06
Exxon Mobil Corporation Stock Quote
Exxon Mobil Corporation
XOM
$92.20 (0.81%) $0.74
General Electric Company Stock Quote
General Electric Company
GE
$79.92 (-1.42%) $-1.15

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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