Nissan Picks JATCO & Hitachi Astemo For EV Drivetrains — Are Manufacturers Treating Drive Units Like Transmissions?

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Nissan recently chose JATCO and Hitachi Astemo to provide something very important for future cars: the drivetrain. After I cover the basics, I want to place this in historical perspective and industry trends and then explain why it shows something new, too.

The Nissan/Jatco/Hitachi Astemo Deal

The short version of this story: Hitachi Astemo, known for its electronics know-how, is going to build some inverters and motors. These will be sold to JATCO, which will assemble drive units for Nissan’s EVs and e-POWER (series hybrid) vehicles.

For those not in the know, JATCO stands for Japan Automatic Transmission Company. It originally started out as part of Nissan, but a partnership with Ford followed by a bankruptcy deal with Mitsubishi, and then a partial purchase by Suzuki lead to JATCO being a major manufacturer of transmissions for not only Japanese vehicles, but also for many other global companies.

With the e-Axle market rapidly expanding, Hitachi Astemo is responding by not only increasing sales of its in-house developed electric axles to auto manufacturers worldwide, but also supplying motors and inverters for electric axles assembled by gearbox manufacturers. For this Nissan/JATCO deal alone, it will be delivering highly efficient, low-loss motors that use square wire as well as inverters that are just as effective.

Going forward, Hitachi Astemo plans to solidify its footing as a premier electrification provider worldwide. To do so, it will capitalize on the advantages gained from uniting Hitachi Automotive Systems with Keihin, Showa and Nissin Kogyo in 2021 — such as integrated technologies and increased production bases — to create an even more powerful global force. The company plans to invest 300 billion yen in electrification by 2025, including R&D. It expects sales revenue to exceed 400 billion yen by 2025 and double sales revenue by 2030.

By unique cooling power module and small, thin, highly heat-dissipating insulation mounting technology, Hitachi Astemo in cooperation with Hitachi’s R&D Group has created an inverter with industry-leading power density. Torque density is a competitive advantage for Hitachi motors — which are the company’s founding product. This was made possible through years of technological advances in areas such as material development and sound reduction to manufacturing technologies that create magnetic circuits from magnets, electromagnetic steel sheets, and windings.

Hitachi Astemo is a powerful systems integrator, with optimization control software for motors and gears. JATCO also focuses on the development and mass production of transmissions to produce compact and quiet gearboxes. This combined effort from Hitachi Astemo’s motors and inverters creates a total e-Axle package for Nissan, which is boasted for its industryleading efficiency, low vibration, low noise and modular design.

Some Background

When it came to ICE cars decades ago, each car company had their own motor designs, which they’d often pit against competitors. Straight six engines competed with V8s. Hemis competed with other piston and head designs. Prolific engines like the Small Block Chevy V8, Oldsmobile 3800cc engines, Toyota’s insanely reliable R engines, and Honda’s VTEC all made names for themselves.

But, in more recent years, things started changing in the industry. The big auto manufacturers standardized more, and chose engine designs that could be used across their whole kingdoms. For example, the Oldsmobile 3800 engine and its descendants ended up being used in everything from Chevrolets to Pontiacs to Buicks.

Uniqueness in different brands fell by the wayside, and some big manufacturers even started sharing engines across companies. BMW and Toyota now share engines in the Z4 and the Supra, and there’s also a common engine powering the Subaru BRZ and the Toyota 86. So, even manufacturers from different continents and part of entirely different parent corporations now share the most mature versions of their engine tech.

This trend is continuing with electric motors. While different manufacturers do have meaningful differences in electric motor, gear reduction, and power electronics, there’s even less incentive to show off special designs to customers. As far as most EV drivers know, an electric motor is an electric motor, with some rare exceptions like that wild carbon-wrapped Tesla Plaid motor. As long as it puts out some torque when you mash the skinny pedal and don’t burn through a battery pack too fast, most people don’t really care about the details.

This allows for weird things, like GM giving Honda a leg-up for its first EVs. This will start with the upcoming Prologue EV, which will be built on GM’s Ultium platform. The vehicle is obviously very similar to a GM, but it’s also got a very Honda design.

Bottom line: getting important components from other manufacturers and consolidating manufacturing between manufacturers isn’t anything new in the automotive industry, but it’s becoming more and more common and more comprehensive.

What’s New About This

One big difference between EV design and ICE design is that the motor is becoming a lot less of its own assembly. ICE engines and ICE transmissions have almost always been separate parts that came from separate factories, only to be joined at the assembly plant, but each of these systems were very complex and had a lot of moving parts on their own. With EVs, both the electric motor and the gear reducer or transmission are far simpler.

So, manufacturers are building combined motors and transmissions now. The industry tends to have numbers and names for transmissions, and the way this is going, they’re just lumping these drive units in with the transmissions for their internal thinking. For example, the drive unit for the Chevy Bolt and Bolt EUV gets a number like other GM transmissions (in this case, it’s the 1ET25).

Given that an EV drive unit has a lot more in common with transmissions than with ICE engines, it makes sense that the industry will treat them like a transmission in their business dealings. But, transmission manufacturers and manufacturing divisions are going to need to reach out to those with knowledge of electric motors and power electronics if they haven’t already cultivated that in-house.

This deal is a very natural fit both for the industry and for Nissan.

Featured image provided by Nissan.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1955 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba