FARMINGTON HILLS, MI – Perhaps best known for its pioneering work in the fields of fuel injection, engine control and stability systems, Germany’s Robert Bosch is moving unflinchingly into the area of electric vehicles, thanks to its 2008 joint venture with Samsung SDI.

Together, the joint company, dubbed SB LiMotive, has invested in a new plant in Ulsan, South Korea, that began producing lithium-ion automotive batteries in January.

Among the first EVs to receive the batteries is BMW’s ActiveE, which arrives later this year. Also, the supplier will provide batteries for the Fiat 500 EV, expected in 2012, and BMW’s Megacity electric, anticipated in 2013.

Battery production is ramping up, and the business is “developing well,” says Bernd Bohr, a member of the Bosch board of management and chairman of its automotive business since 2003.

“And we have several other volume projects we can’t talk about yet,” Bohr tells Ward’s in an interview at Bosch’s North American headquarters here.

Bohr says SB LiMotive leverages the combined strengths of its parent companies: high-volume Li-ion battery experience coming from the consumer-electronics side with Samsung, as well as Bosch’s expertise in automotive specifications, powertrains and vehicle integration.

Eventually, the JV could focus its attention on lithium-sulfur as a source for energy storage, but for now, Li-ion is the key battery chemistry behind EV programs and will be for the next seven years, Bohr predicts.

Li-ion batteries have up to four times the power density of a nickel-metal-hydride battery, common in many current hybrid-electric vehicles. Even without changing battery chemistry, Bohr is confident Li-ion batteries can store twice as much energy as they do today.

Improved energy density will reduce the weight and size of Li-ion batteries, an important goal for the auto industry.

A state-of-the-art Li-ion battery with a range of 93 miles (150 km) and 35 kWh of capacity weighs about 772 lbs. (350 kg) and would fill the trunk of a Volkswagen Golf.

SB LiMotive’s goal is to achieve a battery range of 124 miles (200 km) and to significantly reduce the price to $490 (E350) per kilowatt-hour by 2015, for a total cost of $16,825. Today, that same 35 kWh battery pack costs about $23,840.

An engineer by trade, Bohr describes the manufacturing plant in South Korea as a technology showcase that “really impresses the customers we take there.” He was at the plant three weeks ago.

“The contracts we have on board will fill this factory pretty fast,” Bohr says. “So the next step, around 2013, will be to look into a plant for Europe.”

The JV’s goal is to create 1,000 jobs in Ulsan producing Li-ion cells. By next year, SB LiMotive says it will boost annual cell production capacity to about 600,000 kWh, enough for 20,000 EVs.

With additional contracts coming onstream for the U.S., Bohr says battery manufacturing closer to customer facilities in North America “would be the next step, but that of course depends on how the contracts develop. You need certain economies of scale.”

Much of SB LiMotive’s activity in North America is led by its U.S. subsidiary Cobasys, which the JV company acquired in 2009. With sites in Orion Township, MI, and Springboro, OH, Cobasys manufactures NiMH batteries and is developing next-generation Li-ion cells.

This month, the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium awarded Cobasys $8.4 million to develop high-energy-density Li-ion cells and packs.

Meanwhile, Bosch announces it is scaling back production at its locations in Japan in the wake of last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

The supplier says Japan’s infrastructure is seriously limited in some areas, and that some Bosch factories do not have an uninterrupted supply of power and water. Access to fuel also remains very restricted in many parts of Japan.

Most Bosch expatriates have left Japan. Bosch had given them the option of leaving the country. The supplier has suspended all travel to Japan.

No one was killed or injured at any of the Bosch locations in Japan, which employ about 8,000 workers.

Bohr was in Tokyo when the 1995 earthquake hit Kobe. “It was several hundred kilometers away, so you felt it. But you feel earthquakes every month when you’re living in Japan,” he says. “But it was very serious at that time.”

Based on how quickly the nation recovered from the Kobe quake, Bohr is confident Japan, and the Japanese auto industry in particular, will get back on track in short order.

“Lessons learned from that crisis: There was for one quarter some impact, but one quarter later they were catching up on production,” he says.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com