By on June 23, 2010

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.

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16 Comments on “To Stay Competitive In The EV Transition, Suppliers Focus On Gas Engines...”

  • avatar

    You have touched on a very sensitive nerve that is one of the main reasons why we don’t have widespread usage of EVs today (and no, it’s not the batteries): Multiple industries would be severely impacted if EVs ever catch on: Those quick-lube places – gone. Your local auto parts store that sells primarily oil & filters – don’t need them anymore. Exhaust shops (dying anyways, exhaust systems last a long time now) – don’t need those either. Prestone – who needs it? $800 timing-belt jobs – a thing of the past. There would be a dramatic impact on both the auto parts suppliers and auto service industry if EVs become more prevalent.

    But back on-topic to the so-called range extenders: Lots of issues with having one over a pure EV: 1) additional cost 2) additional weight 3) where to put it 4) auxiliary systems needed now (cooling, fuel storage and delivery, exhaust, etc) 5) where to put those 6) emissions issues (exhaust, fuel vapor containment/recovery). Lots of additional engineering challenges, even if it’s just a “tiny” unit.

    There have been EV manufacturers (one in CA, can’t remember the name now) who have built trailer-mounted range extenders that can be used on longer trips. One has to do the math to see if the tradeoff for the additional weight and aerodynmic drag makes it a viable concept or not.

    It seems to me that we are already approaching this same concept with the “plug-in” hybrids being developed now (a hybrid with a larger battery pack allowing it to run in EV-only mode for a longer distance and up to a higher top speed than conventional hybrids).

  • avatar

    The problem with EV supply is that it takes margins are thin due to high-costs of rare earth metals, even the Prius IIRC uses 1-kilo of neodymium and around 12-kilos of lanthanum per vehicle. For a pure EV, this would be an order of magnitude higher in terms of cost.

    Most analyst predict that EVs won’t have significant market share for decades, and that most growth will be in hybrids, and a lesser extent PHEVs.

    In the short-term EV components for hybrids will add complexity to the automobile, and would require more suppliers and create more jobs rather then reduce them.

    For instance, Toshiba announced just today that they will be building a new production line in Houston that will be supplying electric motors to Ford hybrids. By 2020, its expected to be a $11B market, and it’ll be a market that will run in supplement to the existing supply chain.

  • avatar

    Hmm I am more interested in the single casting for the block/head/exhaust-manifold. Maybe thats old news but I guess the time for the servicable head has come and gone. Probably a PITA to do machining get the valves in there if you tried to rebuild one but who does that these days, just melt it down and make something with newer tech.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m kinda ambivalent on the monocast. The theorist in me understands the practical reality that it is cheaper, lighter, and frankly, in a disposable transportation appliance.

      The flip side is that we abandoned integral heads a long time ago for several reasons. In net energy terms, the disposable nature of this lump is concerning.

      Human nature is human nature: most OEMs are dead men walking. Transitions to electric are going to kill them, that’s life. Sucks to have been a coal miner, a buggy manufacturer, one of the hundreds of auto manufacturers at the turn of the century, someone who’s existence is tied to incandescent bulbs, or a rotary phone builder. The world moves on, get over yourself, evolve or die.

    • 0 avatar

      Can you expand on the reasons against integral head, or reccommend some reading? All I can figure is manufacturing ease and servicability. More sophisticated manufacturing methods take care of the first.

      The way I see it, manufacturing easily used and recycled products using the minimum amount of material designed to last a specifc time period is the way of the future. New advances in technology can be easily implemented as old products go out of service and are recycled into the latest technology.

      Servicability is romantic and all, but carrying around extra complexity and material to ensure future servicability at a later time when the technology will be out of date is not going to make sense at some point.

      The integral head looks like it works toward that future.

    • 0 avatar


      If you have an SAE membership, there’s plenty to read. But, I do think you have the essentials pretty well nailed – manufacture and serviceability.

      Modern multi-axis CAM can cover the manufacture part of the equation, and the maint part is ‘doable’. The devil is always in the details.

      Valve job? No longer do you pull the head, you have to pull the engine. Then completely disassemble it, and then the machine shop has to spend a ton more set-up time than just machining a head.

      No matter what the malfunction, admittedly rare these days, but still happens, there will be no option but a replacement engine for all but the most hardcore mechanics.

      When there are no options for repair but factory or dedicated specialist rebuilds, you can count on paying. Dearly.

      As to the upgrade factor, I would proffer it far more applicable to computers. Engines are hugely energy intensive to design, test, manufacture and ship. There has to be a huge advantage in efficiency to justify a replacement when one looks at the whole energy picture.

      Sounds nice on paper, but I’m afraid it would be, umm, non-optimal in the real world.

  • avatar

    A gas engine as a range extender for an EV car sounds like using ground beef as an extender for veggie casserole.

  • avatar

    Jaguar is developing a series hybrid which uses a turbine motor to recharge the engine.

    Personally I think this is the way to go.

    • 0 avatar
      Brian P

      Turbine engines on an automotive scale have poor efficiency. Turbines work for utility power generation on a large scale, where it’s practical to use multiple stages of regeneration and reheat. The Reynolds number effects of scaling down a turbomachine (essentially, the effects related to the viscosity of the fluid) are unavoidable, and essentially mean that a small turbine will *never* approach the efficiency of a big one.

      Ain’t gonna happen.

  • avatar

    Wont anyone think of the gasket industry?

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    How exactly is fewer, simpler, more robust parts bad for the consumer again?

    This sounds a bit like the lamenting of the buggy-whip, horseshoe, feed bag, fodder and surrey-with-a-fringe-on-top industries..

  • avatar

    There is some talk this unit, including the generator will cost $1500-$2500.. so whats the big deal replacing it?.. in any case a range extender genset will accumulate very few hours during the life of the car.

  • avatar

    The service industry will adapt. OBDI and OBDII weren’t the death of the backyard mechanic. He just had to learn a new skill set.

    With electrics, you’ll already be using some skill sets required for maintaining alternators and other engine accessories. In fact, knowledge of electronics and electric motors is a must nowadays… electric power steering pumps… electric steering racks… start-stop… electric AC…

    It’s always been the batteries. Always. A pack that gives the energy density and light weight needed to match gasoline engines from a performance standpoint still costs as much as an entire gasoline car. That’s why range extenders are vital for making electrics more viable for the general consumer… whether or not they actually drive further than an EV’s range in a single day… because it allows the manufacturer to use less of the most expensive, most disposable part of the car… while still assuring customers that the vehicle won’t leave them stranded in case they want to drive cross-country for some reason.

    Despite the problems, mass-market EVs are closer to reality than ever. Nissan’s pricing on the Leaf, thanks to their internalizing development and saving on the cost of paying someone else to do it, blows even the “homebrew-kit-in-a-Chinese-body-rake-in-them-millions-in-subsidies-from-the-US-government” out of the water. It still isn’t cost effective (after you crunch the numbers) for private buyers, but it is starting to make sense for car share / rental fleets.

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