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The future is electric but is it 48V?

Thu, 11/14/2013 - 14:16 -- Editor

Changing the voltage level of electrical systems in cars is not an easy task. In fact, it is a real pain in the backside.

The last time there was a major upshift in car voltage levels was in the 1950s, when many manufacturers switched from 6V to 12V. Despite all the positive noises at the Automotive 48V Power Supply Systems conference in Frankfurt on 11-13 November, this author is not at all convinced the car world will quite yet take the huge undertaking of converting to 48V.

There is no question about the attractiveness of a 48V powertrain. Lower CO2 emissions and improved fuel consumption coupled with more low-end grunt for faster acceleration via the benefit of electric motors in a ‘mild’ hybrid application is a sexy prospect.

An analyst from market intelligence firm Frost & Sullivan who was obviously keen to sell his reports spoke animatedly about a ‘tipping point’ where car manufacturers, driven by European Union (EU) emissions regulations and ever-increasing loads on components, will be forced to go to 48V, and he expected 2m 48V vehicles on the road by 2020.

Others were even more optimistic. Bosch projected 3.5m 48V vehicles on the road by 2020, that magic year when so many targets in so many sectors will or will not be hit.

And yet. And yet. There are many reasons to believe these targets may in time to be seen as wildly optimistic. One reason is the EU CO2 emissions limits themselves, which are a moveable feast, meaning that perhaps the strongest argument for developing 48V is built on shaky foundations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, believed to be under pressure from BMW, Audi and Daimler, has pressed the European Commission to delay and water down regulations to set an average limit for new cars’ emissions of 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre by 2020. Elsewhere, emissions regulations are not seen as sufficient to drive development of 48V, not least in the USA, which is perhaps a decade behind Europe.

Other reasons to doubt the introduction of 48V this side of 2020 include electromagnetic safety issues, weight problems, footprint, not to mention the lack of suppliers and technical standards. All of which add to the cost, which is of course the primary drawback for any car manufacturer.

And let’s be clear. While Tier 1 equipment suppliers like Bosch think 48V is a great idea, the car manufacturers are understandably not so keen given the costs and logistical challenge. BMW, for one, was quite open about this in Frankfurt, as was Peugeot-Citroen, even though these two manufacturers have semi-committed to develop 48V vehicles.

As one delegate told me, “Now is the right time to start to think about 48V cars, if not make 48V cars”. I believe he is right.

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