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Electronics

Daikin casts wary eye on a Tesla foray into air conditioners

Musk looks to bring innovative heat pump tech to home HVAC systems

Tesla has set its eyes on a new field: energy-efficient air conditioners.   © Reuters

OSAKA -- Elon Musk, the Tesla founder with ventures ranging from space travel to tunnel construction, has now set home air conditioning in his sights, worrying existing players like Daikin Industries that could see their industry disrupted.

"That's a pet project that I'd love to get going on," possibly to "start working on that next year," Musk told Tesla investors at an event in late September.

"You could really make a way better home HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] system that's really quiet and superefficient," he said.

What this will mean for other air conditioner makers remains to be seen. Tesla's move poses a "big threat," a Daikin executive said.

But another Daikin executive saw it more as a business opportunity. "We need to think of it as a chance and consider partnering with Tesla," this source said.

Such tie-ups are not uncommon in the industry. Daikin, for example, now works together with China's Gree Electric Appliances of Zhuhai, the world's biggest producer of household units by volume.

Unlike Tesla, Daikin does not produce solar panels or storage batteries.

Though Tesla's move may seem to have come out of the blue, it ties in to technology developed for the company's core auto business. The Model Y sport utility vehicle rolled out by the electric-car maker this year features a heat pump for temperature control, which improves efficiency while also boosting the vehicle's range in colder temperatures compared with traditional heating systems.

Musk himself called it "pretty spectacular" at the investor event. "It's tiny, it's efficient ... it has to last for 15 years" and has to work in conditions from "the coldest winter to the hottest summer," he said.

Tesla has beefed up its energy business over the past several years, launching the Powerwall home battery in 2015 and acquiring U.S.-based solar panel installer SolarCity in 2016. Combining these technologies with efficient air-conditioning systems could provide significant energy savings to households.

Heating and air-conditioning systems account for about 30% to 40% of the energy consumed by an ordinary household.

"Tesla is looking toward a world where consumers buy and sell excess electricity created through energy management," said the Itochu Research Institute's Sanshiro Fukao, an auto-industry expert. "It doesn't see air conditioners as mere hardware."

Tesla's foray into electric vehicles began with a partnership with U.K.-based automaker Lotus. The company has teamed up with Panasonic in lithium-ion batteries. And in air conditioners, Tesla "will use a partnership to prioritize speed," said Hitoshi Kaise, a partner at Roland Berger in Tokyo.

Automotive and household air conditioners are designed differently and use different coolants. The automaker could leverage a partner's expertise to make the jump, as well as access crucial sales channels.

Tesla is also looking to start in-house production of electric-vehicle batteries, using outside know-how it has acquired. Future partners will likely face the challenge of generating synergies with Tesla while maintaining a close grip on their own technologies and know-how.

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