Is the honeymoon over for Tesla and Panasonic?

Tesla Batteries 18650 Li-ion Cells

The relationship between Tesla and Panasonic has been a rocky one from the start. When Gigafactory 1 was in the planning stages, the Japanese giant waffled about how much it planned to invest, causing TSLA stock to gyrate. Panasonic doesn’t seem to have prospered from the partnership – the conglomerate’s battery unit is reported to be losing money, and its stock price has been on a downward trend since mid-2018.

Now an article in the Wall Street Journal paints a picture of two companies at odds due to a clash of corporate cultures. The article’s opening sentence refers to Elon Musk’s burlesque of smoking a doobie during a video interview – this apparently shocked some executives in Japan, where smoking the plant is still considered a serious crime.

Mr. Musk has repeatedly pressured Panasonic to cut prices for its battery cells, but Panasonic CEO Kazuhiro Tsuga has held firm.

The Journal describes Mr. Tsuga as “a traditionally reserved Japanese executive,” and says he is one of the few execs left at Panasonic who champions the Tesla partnership. Tsuga told reporters in September that he has had regrets about investing in the Gigafactory, and told the WSJ he’s hesitant to join Tesla in its China expansion.

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Former Panasonic executive VP Yoshihiko Yamada joined Tsuga in pushing the Tesla relationship, winning over other skeptical execs – he has now retired. At Tesla, Kurt Kelty, a former Panasonic employee and fluent Japanese speaker, did his part to build the relationship, helping to navigate the conglomerate’s bureaucracy and sitting in on meetings between Musk and Panasonic execs – Kelty left Tesla in 2017.

However, Musk told the WSJ that the partners’ relationship is still strong, and shared a recent message from Mr. Tsuga that said, “It is not an easy business environment for both of us, but I strongly believe we have to strengthen our partnership even more.”

Oddly, the WSJ report makes no mention of the open secret that Tesla is working towards producing its own battery cells. The California carmaker has acquired two firms with expertise in battery production, and battery research partner Jeff Dahn recently described a new “million-mile” battery cell. If the Tesla/Panasonic partnership is under strain, this is surely at least one of the reasons.

For its part, Panasonic recently announced a partnership with Toyota to develop prismatic cells.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Electrek