Cleantech Market Intelligence
The Unsettled Future of the Electric Powertrain
I recently attended the conference on automotive 48V systems in Berlin organized by BIS Group. My key conclusion is that the electric powertrain is far from a settled science. Many that presented are enthusiastic about 48V technology and its potential for the future. German startup company Volabo even presented the case for a 48V all-electric vehicle. Others see 48V as an interim measure primarily to help OEMs pass the 2020 European Union emissions targets in the short term, with a future going more toward all-electric and full hybrid. Even though production plans have only been made in the last couple of years, powertrain development company AVL told me that testing of 48V systems has been going on for at least 10 years.
Unsurprisingly, Denso has a less enthusiastic opinion of 48V technology than some of the other delegates. The Japanese market has firmly embraced full hybrid drive thanks to Toyota and Honda; the majority of the vehicles on Japanese roads are small cars and trucks with efficient gasoline engines.
A good portion of the engineer audience thinks that an all-electric vehicle future is coming sooner rather than later. However, others are more in line with Navigant Research’s global vehicle forecast that the internal combustion engine still has a long future.
Low Voltage EVs
Volabo is a startup company spun out of a Munich university. Its proposal is a new type of electric motor that uses no copper winding and uses power electronics to control the magnetic fields. High power is made possible by locating the battery close to the motor, connected by thick bars rather than wires to handle the high currents of up to 5,000 amps. Prototype manufacturing for this motor is at the early stage, and there is a lot of interest from other delegates.
Indian OEM Tata’s European Tech Center has examined the market for 48V systems in India and concludes that the market will only be in the C-segment and luxury due to the cost increment. The bulk of the Indian market is very low cost small cars. Typical Indian drivers do not like stop-start systems (and deactivate them if fitted) because fractions of a second delays matter in navigating typical traffic jams. Plug-in EVs are also not likely to be popular in India in the short term because of the unreliability of the local electric grid.
Higher Power Demand
Magna International agrees with one of the key conclusions from my presentation: automated driving systems will support the move toward 48V systems, with demand of up to an additional 10 kW for computing and electric controls that is simply impractical from 12V networks. McLaren Applied Technologies presented some of its development work for racing that is finding its way into volume production. Silicon carbide semiconductors, for example, are prompting performance improvements, and now development work is moving into gallium nitride.
48V automotive systems appear to be an immediate solution to meet upcoming stricter emissions legislation and to provide additional power for automated driving systems. In the short term, these systems will be important in large markets such as Europe, North America, and China, and less so in Japan and India. The longer-term future is somewhat dependent on the growth of high voltage hybrid and all-electric drive, which in turn rely on continued reduction in battery cost. More analysis of the market for 48V systems is available in the Navigant Research report, Low Voltage Vehicle Electrification.