DETROIT – Just when it appeared the auto industry had jettisoned the development of 42-volt systems comes another prediction: The pessimism may be overrated.

That is the word from Thomas Keim, principal research engineer at the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Today’s pessimism (surrounding the progress of 42-volt systems) is as wrong as 2000’s wild optimism,” he tells attendees at Convergence 2004 here. “The day will come when we have to address the need for more power in the vehicle.”

Keim admits the path toward 42-volt systems has gotten a little longer, due in part to the progress suppliers have made in adapting 14-volt technologies.

Many prognosticators have been downplaying the ability of 14-volt systems to accommodate infotainment systems, adaptive cruise-control systems and other complex technologies, but electronics and electrical system suppliers are meeting the demands of OEMs with 14 volts.

“The 14-volt industry is offering OEMs parts that do things they couldn’t do just four years ago,” he says.

Keim says the cost of introducing 42-volt systems on mass market vehicles is prohibitive. He points to the DC/DC converters and extra battery needed to power 42-volt systems, which cost more than $100 each. That’s enough to make any auto maker jump off the 42-volt bandwagon.

“When you move to a 42-volt system, all of the parts, the sensors, connectors, are going to have to be custom parts because no 14-volt parts will work with the 42-volt systems.

When it comes down to it, it’s all about money, and at today’s level 42-volt is not a cost savings,” he says.

Still, Keim says the industry must continue to support the development of 42-volt systems and components by suppliers, as the industry will have to migrate to 42-volts sometime in the future. Exactly when is the big question.

One thing is certain: As long as OEMs continue to push for more cost reductions, as opposed to adopting new technologies, 14-volt will be around.

kekelly@primediabusiness.com