To Stay Competitive In The EV Transition, Suppliers Focus On Gas Engines

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Herm Perez Herm Perez on Jun 23, 2010

    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.

  • 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.

  • EBFlex More proof of how much EVs suck. If you have to do this, that means you are trying to substitute what people want...and that's ICE.
  • Akear The only CEO who can save Boeing, GM, and Ford is Alan Mulally. Mulally is largely credited with saving both Boeing and Ford. The other alternative is to follow a failed Jack Welch business model. We have all witnessed what Jack Welch did to GE, and what happened to Boeing when it was taken over by GE-trained businessmen. Below is an interesting article on how Jack Welch indirectly ruined Boeing.
  • ChristianWimmer The interior might be well-made, but the design is just hideous in my opinion. It’s to busy and there’s no simplistic harmony visible in it. In fact I feel that the nicest Lexus interior ever could be found in the original LS400 - because it was rather minimalistic, had pleasing lines and didn’t try to hard. It looked just right. All Lexus interiors which came after it just had bizarre styling cues and “tried to hard” if you know what I mean.
  • THX1136 As a couple of folks have mentioned wasn't this an issue with the DeLorean? I seem to recall that it was claimed you could do a 'minor' buff of the surface and it would be good as new. Guess I don't see why it's a big deal if it can be so easily rectified. Won't be any different than getting out and waxing the car every so often - part of ownership, eh.
  • ToolGuy This kind of thing might be interesting in a racing simulator.