Not everyone loves electric cars.

"We're quite apprehensive about electric vehicles," says Yasunobu Suzuki, CEO of NTN, the world’s largest manufacturer of hub bearings and the second largest in constant velocity joints.

Standard cars and hybrids generally use 120 or 130 hub bearings and constant-velocity joints apiece. An EV like the i-MiEV from Mitsubishi, however, uses only half as many.

And that's not all. If the in-wheel motors now being developed as drive sources enter widespread use in the EV market, it would make differential gears and drive shafts superfluous, dropping the total number of bearings needed per vehicle down to about 20. As a result, revenue could plummet drastically in a worse-case scenario.

NOK, meanwhile, has begun to diversify into printed circuit boards and lithium-ion technology to offset potential declines in engine seals. In September 2010, Nidec of Japan acquired the home appliance and industrial equipment motors division of Emerson Electric and is now supplying drive motors for the Mercedes-Benz E-CELL EV based on the firm's A Class model. NTN has a hub motor (see photo).

While electric cars will likely only constitute a fraction of the total number of cars shipped over the next decade, their emergence poses a definite challenge to traditional manufacturers.  At worse, not retooling could mean losing out on perhaps one of the biggest growth opportunities in recent memory.

"The ratio of mechanical to electrical parts is about 7:3 right now, by quantity, but this could reverse to 3:7 in the future,” said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, Executive Vice President of Research and Development.

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