June 8, 2015 / 9:12 AM / 2 years ago

UPDATE 1-Panasonic to send hundreds to Tesla Gigafactory, step up auto investment

* Staff to prepare lithium-ion battery-making from autumn

* Electric car plant to begin manufacturing next year

* Panasonic to invest nearly $500 mln on auto ops this year

* Looking to develop auto tech partnerships with others

By Ritsuko Ando

OSAKA, Japan, June 8 (Reuters) - Japanese electronics group Panasonic Corp will dispatch hundreds of employees to Tesla Motors Inc's Nevada Gigafactory from this autumn to get ready to make lithium-ion batteries for electric cars at the plant from next year.

Panasonic's partnership with ambitious automaker Tesla is a key part of a drastic restructuring in recent years to end losses, squeezed by cheaper Asian rivals. The firm has exited unprofitable product lines like smartphones and plasma TVs, pivoting instead to energy-saving home systems and investing nearly $500 million to develop auto business this year alone.

"We'll need hundreds of people at the start," Yoshio Ito, head of Panasonic's automotive and industrial systems (AIS) division, told reporters at a briefing on Monday. "We should actually see that starting around the autumn."

Ito said Panasonic plans to invest around 60 billion yen ($478 million) in the current fiscal year through March in its automotive business. That includes the Gigafactory, which Tesla has said will cost up to roughly $5 billion, with Panasonic to shoulder around 30 to 40 percent of the investment in a plant that is key to the automaker's plans to ramp up sales.

The Panasonic executive said part of the 60 billion yen will also go to the company's joint development project with Spanish auto parts maker Ficosa International SA. Ficosa specialises in advanced driver assistance systems, featuring blind spot detection and assisted parking.

Panasonic said in September that it would take a nearly 50 percent stake in Ficosa, its biggest strategic investment in the automotive field. Advanced driver assistance systems technology is considered a key step on the way to self-driving cars, which analysts expect to generate a new wave of huge investments in auto and technology industries over the next decade.

Asked about further acquisitions in this field, where it competes with bigger rivals such as Germany's Continental AG and Robert Bosch GmbH as well as Japan's Denso Corp, Ito said Panasonic would look to expand partnerships with other manufacturers.

Ito said Panasonic's strength was in sensing and image processing, but that it could look to partners to provide other technologies, for example those that help alert drivers or correct their course when problems are detected.

"We have the sensors...But in the future we'll see technology that gets the data and informs the driver or sets off automatic controls, and those are areas where we don't have expertise," he said. "Those are areas where we can collaborate." ($1 = 125.4900 yen) (Editing by Chris Gallagher and Kenneth Maxwell)

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