PARIS - It's 2005 and you're stopped at a traffic light checking your location on the satellite navigation system and sipping nice hot coffee from your heated cup holder. Your wife has her heated seat on high while she is having a conference call with her office in Brussels. Your kids are in the back seat surfing the Web and playing video games. Suddenly it hits you: "Hey, where is the electricity coming from to run all this stuff?"
To a growing number of automakers and suppliers, this is not a question, but a serious challenge for the future. Not only is the horde of electric-powered consumer gadgets beginning to tax vehicle electrical systems beyond their limits, but a countless number of other components, including electro-magnetically actuated valvetrains, electric pre-heaters for catalytic converters and electric steering and brakes promise to demand even more voltage down the road.
Quite simply, today's 12-volt automotive electrical and electronic systems are not adequate for future cars. That's spawning a technology race among suppliersto deliver new types of power-generating, storage and distribution systems that likely will be a must for vehicles beginning around 2005.
"In the future, people may buy cars depending on how good the video games are," says Dr. Henrich A. Wied, director of technology atAutomotive Systems in Germany.
A variety of new products - such as more powerful alternators - will begin to appear quite soon, as automotive electrical systems ramp up from today's 12-volt systems to 36 volts, 42 volts, or mixtures of several different voltages managed by a central controller. By 2010, a lot of cars will have 42-volt systems, Mr. Wied predicts.
Higher voltage systems are especially important in Europe, where electrically intensive vehicles are considered to be more fuel efficient and eco-friendly, says Graham J. Bell, director of marketing and operations planning atAutomotive Systems' European headquarters here.
Electrically powered pumps, fans, air conditioning compressors, valvetrains and power-assisted steering do not rob horsepower from the engine like hydraulics or pulley-driven units and thus improve fuel economy, Mr. Bell says. He adds that cars that automatically cut their engines at stoplights to conserve fuel and limit pollution are seriously being considered in Europe.
At a special ride-and-drive session held near Paris in late June, Delphi Automotive Systems touted its "Energen" family of technologies aimed at powering many vehicle systems and sub-systems with electric motors rather than conventional mechanical drives and hydraulics hooked up to the engine with belts and pulleys. It also displayed its powerful new water-cooled generator, which can put out 50% more amps at idle than conventional alternators.
Delphi, which is perhaps best known in Europe as a major supplier of labor-intensive wiring harnesses, now is re-crafting these low-tech - albeit crucial - components into sophisticated "power distribution systems" that integrate electrical, electronic and energy management functions into one optimized system that reduces weight and cost and is simpler to make.
The foundation of this new high-tech strategy is the Energen concept. Coupled with a new generation of high-voltage batteries, it aims to power functions such as the air conditioning compressor, water pump and other devices electrically rather than mechanically. These devices are tied together by the wiring harness and turned into a computer-controlled electrical network where power is generated by a combined starter/alternator that can start and stop the engine almost effortlessly. Target production for an Energen system, including an in-line combined starter/alternator, is 2003, Delphi says.
Delphi is far from alone in this pursuit, of course. RobertGmbH, AG, Lucas and several other major suppliers also are developing combined starter/alternators and electrical networking concepts.
Coming down the road sooner is Delphi's liquid-cooled alternator. It goes into production on two German vehicles in September 1999. Delphi officials won't name the customers, but one - and maybe both - applications are thought to be outside parent GM.
Although it weighs 2.2 lbs. (1 kg) more than a conventional alternator and is as much as 30% more expensive, Delphi officials expect the liquid-cooled alternator to be a very hot product because conventional bulky, noisy, air-cooled alternators are reaching the limits of their output capabilities.
Not only is the liquid-cooled alternator more powerful, compact and substantially quieter than traditional units, it also has other substantial benefits as well. Delphi engineers say that by tying the alternator into the engine's liquid cooling system, the considerable heat the alternator generates can be used to warm the engine faster during cold startups, thereby reducing emissions, and speeding cabin warm-ups during cold winter days.
Delphi engineers say this last feature has automakers especially interested in using the liquid-cooled alternator with diesel engines because today's highly efficient oil-burners struggle to get cabin temperatures to comfortable levels during frigid weather.