ATSUGI, Japan - At Nissan's new complex for technology, experimental car batteries were sitting in freezing temperatures, getting cooked in giant metal boxes, and being rattled to simulate driving - part of the automaker's efforts to catch up in the race to develop green vehicles.
The lithium-ion batteries, seen as advantageous because they are smaller than existing systems, were being tested to withstand extreme temperatures at the center that opened this week in Atsugi, just west of Tokyo.
The new facility underlines Nissan Motor Co.'s determination to develop environmental and safety technologies that are increasingly critical for riding out the tough competition in the auto industry.
Automakers have increased investments in alternative-energy vehicles, as rising gasoline prices and environmental awareness boost demand.
"Whether products with technology that appeals to consumers can be offered in a timely manner will determine the winners and the losers," Nissan chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn said in Japanese at the opening of the Advanced Technology Center.
Nissan officials acknowledge that the near-collapse the company went through after a 1999 alliance with Renault SA of France meant it could not invest in technology as much as they would have liked. But for the last several years, Nissan has been investing more in developing new technologies, they said.
Ghosn told reporters that Nissan was under no pressure to find a new alliance partner, although his company had taken part in talks with General Motors Corp. GM eventually rejected the concept.
"We're not talking with anybody," Ghosn said. "I don't think it's the right timing today."
He also said that he was satisfied with the scale of the Nissan-Renault partnership and that expanding the alliance would not be a must for gaining an edge in technology, because Nissan was developing its own technology.
The towering new technology center, surrounded by green hills, has a dramatically cascading glass roof that allows engineers to share their collaborative work in a spacious setting. It will house 2,000 employees, working on such ideas as zero-emission electric vehicles and "smart cars" that help avoid collisions.
Some analysts say Japan's No. 3 automaker has fallen behind rivals Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. in developing gas-and-electric hybrid cars and other technologies that reduce gas emissions blamed for global warming.
Yasuaki Iwamoto, an auto analyst with Okasan Securities Co. in Tokyo, said investing in the Advanced Technology Center was a step in the right direction for Nissan.
"Otherwise, Nissan has no chance of surviving the competition," he said. "Catching up won't be that easy for Nissan. It's not as though Toyota and Honda are going to sit still and do nothing."
Nissan introduced a hybrid last year, but it now licenses the technology from Toyota. Nissan is working on an original hybrid, set to be introduced by 2010, using what it says is a superior kind of battery technology: the lithium-ion battery that's common in gadgets such as laptops and cell phones but has yet to be fully adapted to the more rigorous demands of a car engine.
Hybrids from Toyota and Honda use nickel-metal hydride batteries, although all major automakers, including GM, are working on lithium-ion batteries for vehicles.
Breakthroughs may be exactly what Nissan needs if it hopes to narrow the gap in hybrids with industry leaders such as Toyota and Honda, analysts say.
Although hybrid sales are still a fraction of those for standard models, brand image tends to get a nice lift from such technology. Sales of Toyota hybrids and Honda small cars have jumped in the United States and other overseas markets lately because of soaring gas prices.
Nissan senior vice president Minoru Shinohara said that Nissan was not preoccupied with what rivals might be doing but that it was focused on its own goals, such as perfecting its original hybrid system that he said would outperform the competition.
Nissan also is developing a "three-liter car" capable of traveling 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, on just three liters - or about three quarts - of gasoline. The company hopes to unveil a new model in Japan in 2010.
"We have been preparing now for several years, and we are ready with several key kinds of advanced technology," Shinohara said.