Electric cars are still relatively new technology. Their gasoline and diesel powered cousins have had more than a century to work out the kinks and you have to admit, they have gotten pretty good at what they do. They are smooth, powerful, and robust. If it weren’t for all the crud that spews out of their tailpipes — and all the other pollutants associated with drilling for oil, transporting it, refining it, and then distributing it to gas stations — you might say the internal combustion engine is just about perfect.
The same process of constant improvement and refinement is going on now to make electric cars that drive further and charge faster. Efficiency is the name of the game. Some of that comes from better aerodynamics, some from improved battery technology, and some from better motors, inverters, and such. Here is a story about two of those advances that promise better electric cars in the years to come. Both are from Tier One suppliers to the automotive industries — the companies we never hear about but who provide most of the components that go into the cars we drive.
Vitesco Externally Excited Synchronous Motor
This week, the 35th International Electric Vehicle Symposium is taking place in Oslo, Norway. One of the companies present at the show is Vitesco Technologies, a spin-off of Continental, one of the biggest of those Tier One suppliers. Thomas Stierle, the head of electrification technology and electronic controls for Vitesco, says “Oslo is the meeting place for all the big names in automotive electrification. We will be presenting highlights from our current portfolio there, as well as innovations for the future requirements of electromobility — for particularly efficient electric driving.”
One of those innovations is an externally excited synchronous motor the company says is optimized for long distance driving at highway speeds. Unlike permanently excited synchronous motors widely used today, the externally excited synchronous motors do not require rare earth metals. Instead of a rotor with a permanent magnet made of rare earth metals used in permanently excited synchronous motors, the EESM uses a coil to generate magnetic fields in the stator and the rotor. These new motors are said to be more efficient, particularly in highway driving.
Greater efficiency means longer range, something every EV driver will appreciate. But there is another significant benefit to EESM motors. They are less expensive to manufacture, largely because the do not require rear earth elements that have been escalating in price lately. Prices for PSM motors are now the highest they have been for the past 10 years. That may be why BMW is using EESMs in its 5th generation electric cars such as the iX3, i4, iX, i7, and iX1.
Also in Oslo this week, Electric Vitesco says will feature its systems and solutions for more efficient electric cars, including battery management systems, power electronics, and thermal management controls. “With our portfolio, we are clearly focusing on global, scalable platforms for electrified vehicles. This is where we see the growth, and this is also where the potential for sustainable and CO2-neutral mobility of the future lies,” Stierly says.
Schaeffler More Efficient Axle For Electric Cars
Also in Oslo this week, Schaeffler, another Tier One supplier, presenting a range of electric drive solutions, including its new 4-in-1 drive axle for electric cars. In addition to the electric motor, power electronics and transmission components, which are often integrated into one component, the 4-in-1 system also integrates thermal management into the package.
Integration saves weight and space, but the thermal management system is particularly efficient, the company says. That means more range and faster charging for electric cars. According to Electric, energy consumption using the new integrated drive axle will be reduced by up to 14%. Part of that efficiency is due to better waste heat utilization and part due to a new CO2 heat pump. In addition, the new units cost about 10% less than current drive axles.
The thermal management of electric drivetrains is very important, since they don’t have an abundance of waste heat from a combustion engine available. That makes heat in electric cars a “scarce and valuable commodity,” says Shaeffler. It is needed to both warm the passenger compartment and to precondition the battery for fast charging. With little waste heat available, electric cars must generate their own heat with energy from the battery.
“The thermal management system has a significant influence on the efficiency and comfort of the vehicle,” says Jochen Schröder, head of electromobility at Schaeffler. With the 4-in-1 E-axle, “this creates a highly integrated and compact complete system, which requires significantly less space than non-integrated solutions.”
Since unnecessary hoses and cables are dispensed with, less energy is also lost in the form of heat. “In addition to the compact design, the greatest advantage of the 4 in 1 system is the optimized interaction of the individual subsystems,” says Schröder. During development, the engineers considered both the thermal behavior of individual drive components — such as the electric motor or the power electronics — as well as the most efficient and comprehensive thermal management of the entire vehicle in order not to dissipate waste heat from the electric motor and power electronics via a radiator, but to use it to heat the interior.
Schröder sees both established carmakers and startups as the target group for the highly integrated drive unit. This would shorten the development time and save costs for complex new developments of the entire drive system. The company continues to offer a variety of electric drivetrain components to automakers and is about to introduce its new Beam E-axles, a 3-in-1 system that includes the electric motor, power electronics, and transmission in one integrated package. Schaeffler will supply them to car manufacturers in the future, especially in North America. It says the first orders have already been received.
Efficiency was never that big a deal for gasoline and diesel powered vehicles, but it is perhaps the number one consideration for electric cars and it’s easy to understand why. A gallon of gasoline is equal to 33.7 kWh of electricity. To put it another way, a car with a 67 kWh battery has to be able to do with the energy contained in just 2 gallons of gas. No wonder EVs have to find ways to become more efficient.
We tend to focus on new battery technology and faster chargers and those things are important, but finding ways to make electric cars go further on a kWh of electricity is a critical part of the equation as well. Just as internal combustion engines got better over time, so will electric cars. There are dozens if not hundreds of companies researching ways to improve EV efficiency. It won’t be long before cars with 400 miles of range are common, and that’s when the EV revolution will really shift into high gear.
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