Friday 19 January 2018

Panasonic aims to be driving force behind electric car revolution

Once king of hi-fi systems and home electronics, the Japanese giant is reinventing itself for the Tesla age. Adrian Weckler spoke to European ceo, Laurent Abadie, about powering the first mass-production electric car, cameras, smart gadgets and transparent panels replacing high-end televisions in our homes

Panasonic's European ceo Laurent Abadie says it will develop new 'smart' technologies. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Panasonic's European ceo Laurent Abadie says it will develop new 'smart' technologies. Photo: Adrian Weckler

When Elon Musk's new make-or-break Tesla 3 electric car goes on sale later this year, the batteries inside will bear the name of one Japanese manufacturer.

Panasonic may be the firm people associate with televisions, hi-fi units or cameras, but the firm does quite a few other things, too.

"Everyone's talking about Tesla, but in terms of automotive batteries we are the number one manufacturer in the world," says Laurent Abadie, chief executive of Panasonic Europe.

"Tesla is a huge investment from our side. We are a shareholder in Tesla and have been developing with them from their first day."

But car batteries don't look as good in photos as rocket ships or electric sports cars.

So while Elon Musk's company gets all the kudos for being the innovation story of the 21st century, it is the engineering of Abadie's firm that helps to make the South African entrepreneur look good.

Panasonic has other things on its plate besides electric cars.

It is still a major player in both the home entertainment and camera worlds. It also has serious aspirations as a smart city technology provider.

The company recently launched its 2017 line-up of televisions, cameras, speakers and hi-fi equipment. Among these were several new high-end televisions that have, the company claims, the best levels of high dynamic range (HDR) in the TV market.

Abadie says that real "disruption", however, may not come until its new transparent displays become available by 2020.

"This is probably the future of next-generation TVs," says Abadie. "The concept of TVs is still from last century, really - a single device in the living room around which the family sits. It's no longer the case, now, but demand for large, high-quality displays is still there and will remain.

"Maybe Oled is the evolution from plasma in terms of technology, contrast and colour saturation, but what could be disruptive might be more about transparent displays, where you could imagine a future window which can become a large display screen at the same time.

"That would bring a lot of new applications or integrations into the home environment."

In this scenario, future kitchens will have large glass panels that double as communications devices and video screens. Abadie says that the technology is imminent.

"We will see it within two to four years," he says.

Panasonic is one of the old crew of electronics companies that are still around.

There was a time when such firms ruled the home technology universe. In the 1980s and 1990s, Sony and Panasonic - with their TVs, stereos and video recorders - vied with Microsoft and Nokia for supremacy in our lives.

In 2017, things are different. Apple, Samsung, Google, Facebook and Amazon have largely carved up the majority of the tech we use every day.

This leaves hardware thoroughbreds like Panasonic diversifying across industrial and business sectors, partially to make up for the limited opportunities now available in consumer markets.

Panasonic's Abadie doesn't try to hide this, but instead of lamenting the supremacy of the smartphone, he and his company have gone about trying to leverage deep expertise in core hardware and electronics engineering.

For example, the Japanese firm is sticking with cameras and camera technology.

It has just launched its flagship GH5 interchangeable lens camera, which is being touted as the industry-leading machine for advanced and semi-professional video recording.

Panasonic also has a large number of lenses available for its Micro Four Thirds system, a format it shares with Olympus. But aren't cameras doomed?

"We've seen that the compact segment, especially at entry level, has been cannibalised by phones," says Abadie. "But at the same time, the demand for high-quality and high-value models is basically there.

"I've seen predictions from analysts saying that this demand will actually grow."

The company works with German firm Leica on its lenses, giving its range a bit of lustre.

It has also recently revived the high-end Technics brand, with several amps, speakers and vinyl players capitalising on a resurgence of interest - even if just at boutique quantities - in top-level home audio systems.

This interest in deep, niche systems is both what makes Panasonic and also what limits its ambition.

Because the company is not a 'fast copier', like the Korean firms of Samsung and LG, it never got out of the traps on the current era's biggest product category, the smartphone.

But it does benefit from an upside of relatively loyal customers and a reputation for products that aren't designed to last less than five years.

This is one reason why Panasonic (with Sony, Canon and one or two others) dominates categories such as professional TV cameras.

Despite generic camera sensors and lenses being commoditised items, professional-grade equipment requires deeper, long-term commitment to a relatively small customer base.

For now, Abadie says that Panasonic's priorities are in underlying technologies that help build things like smart cars, smart cities and smart homes.

"In coming years, such products will become more visible," he says. "Right now, we're really in phase one."

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