The simplification of the automobile that’s set to take place with the transition to electric drivetrains is a troubling trend for the industry. As Bertel Schmitt has already explored, switching to electric drive could see component counts cut by as much as 90 percent, meaning the suppliers who build most of the components in modern cars are staring down a steep drop in their business. As Automotive News [sub] reports, even electric motors, which were once thought of as a growth area for suppliers looking to get in on the EV shift, are being largely built by OEMs, freezing suppliers out of potential growth. Toyota, Nissan and GM supply their own electric motors, leaving suppliers like Remy International behind in the dust. So how can suppliers stay competitive as EVs become more popular? Counter-intuitively, the answer may be gas-powered range extenders.
Several firms have announced new developments in range-extending technology of late, including GM, which recently hinted at a future Wankel rotary range-extender on future iterations of the Chevy Volt. We dismissed the rumor initially as just another way for GM to keep hype around the Volt bubbling, but it seems that The General isn’t the only one spinning right round baby, right round over the possibilities of using a rotary electricity generator. Audi is currently looking into the possibility of a Wankel range-extender, specifically for subcompact applications like a possible E-Tron version of its A1 city car.
Interestingly though, only OEMs are looking seriously at unusual engine configurations for passenger-car range-extenders. Sure, Capstone has developed a CNG-capable micro-turbine for hybrid applications, but it’s designed for hybrid bus applications rather than mass-market cars. Generally, three-cylinder engines seem to be the favored solution for bolt-on range extenders and other hybrid applications, with companies like Mercedes, Jaguar and BMW hinting at future three-pot-powered vehicles.
Anticipating this demand, Lotus Engineering has developed a line of 1.2 liter, three-cylinder range-extending engines that it hopes will offer an out-of-the-box solution for firms that want to sell EVs but don’t want to worry about range anxiety hurting sales. Thanks to aluminum monoblock construction, and Lotus’s decision to integrate the cylinder block, cylinder head and exhaust manifold in one casting, the new range of Lotus range-extenders weigh a mere 125 lbs. With that compact of packaging, the OEM-developed Wankels will be hard-pressed to deliver enough size and weight benefits to outweigh the cheaper, simpler, inherently more-efficient three-banger that Lotus is about to put into production.
But will range-extenders catch on? That’s a huge open question that the OEMs still have yet to answer. According to Automotive News [sub]‘s survey of the industry, most automakers are waiting to watch how round one develops, in which the non-extended Nissan Leaf will take on the extended-range Chevy Volt. After all, range-extenders require more batteries due to incomplete charge-draining and increased battery degradation, adding cost before the range-extender is even bolted on.
Based on their relative performances, it seems much of the industry will then decide whether or not to more heavily favor range-extenders. Which could mean more work for companies like Lotus, or it could mean going back to counting the number of parts suppliers are no longer needed to build. There’s a lot at stake, and the possibilities are wide open. And for a number of suppliers, this single question could be a matter of life or death.