Modern vehicles feature electrical systems that operate on 12 volts. This has pretty much been the industry standard since about the mid-1950s. But engineers at Continental are working to really step things up.
The German firm has developed a 48-volt electrical system that promises a laundry list of benefits, all without breaking the bank. They’re the first big automotive supplier to make investments in this technology.
The system is designed to bridge the gap between traditional 12-volt architectures with start-stop capability and full-blown hybrids. The former provides a modest boost in efficiency at minimal cost while the latter delivers greatly improved economy with a correspondingly larger price tag.
Continental’s 48-Volt Eco Drive system is should offer automakers the best of both worlds. It’s designed to be easily integrated into existing vehicles and provide many of the same benefits of hybrids, all while being dramatically more affordable.
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Jose Avila, member of the executive board for Continental’s powertrain division said, “We are going to [continue] work on the internal combustion engine. There is a lot of life left in it,” but he acknowledged that vehicle electrification is the future.
“Global warming, it is a real issue. We have to act,” said Avila. Every driver may not care about climate change but most are concerned about cost. “They still have a conscience about efficiency … the customer still goes after efficiency,” he said, especially when it saves them money. And 48-volt electrical systems can make a real difference in fuel savings.
In addition to start-stop capability they can provide “e-boosting” for greater acceleration, regenerative braking capability and even allow the combustion engine to be turned off during light-load driving, a situation referred to as sailing. But this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Higher-voltage systems have other benefits as well. They can enable things like electric water pumps, e-turbos and electrically assisted catalysts, items that can further improve vehicle efficiency and performance while simultaneously reducing harmful emissions.
Of course to achieve hybrid-like features and fuel economy you need more than just higher voltage. Conti’s system contains a few other elements including an electric motor with an integrated inverter, a lithium-ion battery pack and a voltage converter, to name a few.
Thanks to lithium-ion’s greater energy-storage capacity vehicles equipped with 48-volt electrics can spend almost a third of the time switched off, something that dramatically improves efficiency. This is especially true if various accessories are running.
A vehicle with a 12-volt system and start-stop may not be able to keep the headlights, stereo and air conditioning simultaneously running for very long when stuck in traffic; the combustion engine would have to be restarted to keep the electrical system charged.
In real-world testing the firm’s 48-volt system resulted in a 21-percent fuel savings. On the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) fuel consumption drops by a claimed 13 percent compared to a conventional vehicle fitted with start-stop technology.
As for availability, this 48-volt system is scheduled to enter production with some European manufacturers in 2016. Accordingly, Dr. Bernd Mahr, head of Continental’s hybrid electric vehicle business unit said, “We will continue to increase efficiency and reduce the cost of the technology.” And over the next five years he stated, “I believe we will have a steep ramp up, a tremendous ramp up.”
It’s estimated that by the year 2025 approximately 20 percent of new vehicles will feature electrified drivetrains. Continental estimates that about half of those will be 48-volt systems.
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