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Car makers address HEV battery issues

Posted: 22 Feb 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:automotive? HEV? electric vehicle? Li-ion battery?

Which type of motor will be best suited future mobility requirements against the background of tighter climate gas emission regulations? While the traditionalist faction believes that conventional combustion engines still offer a large potential to improve efficiency and thus significantly reduce pollutant emissions, others call for radical moves towards a zero-emission vehicle which, of course, will be driven by an electric motor. At the Euroforum conference on automotive electronics in Munich, both groups lifted the lid on the things to come over the next few years.

Tier ones catering real-world car makers these days have to be conservative and progressive at the same time. While the lion's share of their business is designing and selling electronic systems for the existing market of combustion engines, they have to watch out to make sure they don't miss future business opportunities. However, conventional cars still represent a much bigger market opportunity than e-cars. "Today it is more cost-efficient to invest a given sum to further develop combustion engines than to drive hybrid or all-electric concepts," said Herbert Demel, chief operating officer vehicle and powertrain for Magna International.

In any case, energy efficiency remains to be the dominating innovation driver. By "electrifying" ancillary units one by one, they can achieve significant improvements in overall efficiency; some experts said the efficiency benefit will be between 20 and 30 percent.

At the convention, it again became obvious that the German automotive industry is more conservative than its Far Eastern counterparts when it comes to the 'combustion vs. electric' question. While German OEMs in the best case provide a roadmap towards electric cars, some Japanese vendors move much faster towards rolling out volume e-cars for the masses. "Electric vehicles are affordable and producible", claimed Florian Wunsch, business development manager for Nissan International. The Japanese OEM is staging global sales start for an electric middle-class vehicle in already 2012.

Since the expensive Li-ion batteries will continue to represent a high value, ways are discussed to hide the battery costs from the customer and in order to foster e-cars market acceptance. Nissan's Wunsch, for instance, believes the battery will not be sold along with the car but instead be leased to the car buyer. This would permit the car vendors to exclude the battery from the vehicle price and thus avoid deterrent price tags for electric vehicles. Also, this scheme would avoid battery degradation, which is perceived by the customers as a negative factor. According to Nissan's ideas, used e-car batteries will have a second life after they have degraded too much to serve in normal person cars. "After their first life, they can be reused in forklifts or similar vehicles, or assume stabilizing functions within smart grids", Wunsch said.

Battery issues
With energy storage remaining the most critical factor in electric and hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) design for quite a number of years, the discussion continues to focus on ways how to engineer and use the battery. Also, new business models are emerging along the automotive value chain. The automotive "hardware" including engine, electronics and battery could become less important; usage and leasing business models could come to the fore, some believe. "In the automotive value chain, we will see models similar to what we have today in mobile communications", Demel said.

Florian Wunsch agreed. "The electric car will affect the automotive industry much the same way as the cellphone did for the telecommunications industry," he predicted. This trend will eventually render the vehicle hardware a commodity; the differentiation at the market will be achieved by means of personalized features. One example of a conventional real-world vehicle that already is a forerunner of this trend is the BMW Mini, Wunsch hinted.

In any case, the battery in electric cars as well as in HEVs will keep a special position, given its high value and the fact that its price will not decrease as far and as fast as the price for other parts and systems. "There is no Moore's Law for batteries," Wunsch said. "The battery will not go the same way computer CPUs did."

On a more technical level, Bosch manager Rainer Kallenbach agreed that the future for mobility is electric. Kallenbach, who is member of the board for automotive supplier Robert Bosch GmbH, believes that the move towards HEVs and electric drives will trigger an "evolution in the automotive power circuitry similar to what we have seen with respect to the on-board data networks." Kallenbach even predicted "a decade of power electronics". Additional DC/DC converters, additional energy storage systems such as supercaps and a second battery will drive the complexity of the power supply, but the combined measures will improve the overall energy efficiency by up to 20 percent.

- Christoph Hammerschmidt
Automotive Design Europe

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