EV traction motors lack “technology differentiation,” says Magna CTO

  • 26-Apr-2010 01:34 EDT
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Ted Robertson, President of Magna's E-car development group and the company's North American CTO, is excited about the potential for bio-engineered materials. (Image by Lindsay Brooke)

Will the smooth, almost silent electric traction motors that deliver an EV’s drive torque ever command the brand cache and sales influence that charismatic combustion engines have provided since the auto industry’s inception? Can electric machines sell EVs in the way Volkswagen’s “boxer” four-cylinder helped sell millions of Beetles, or the Hemi V8 sells Dodges, for example?

“I haven’t yet seen evidence of any technology differentiators—the things that would lend a traction motor to be brand-specific and so make it a reason to buy a vehicle on its own merit,” observed Ted Robertson, Magna’s Chief Technology Officer for North America and President of the company’s E-Car electric-propulsion development group.

At the 2009 SAE World Congress Robertson, a former GM powertrain and vehicle-development executive, created a minor stir by predicting EV drive motors will be “generic,” similar to how he views most four-cylinder ICEs today. Speaking with AEI at the 2010 Congress, he said he’s seen nothing emerge in the past year to make him change his view.

“In most places in the world, people generally don’t buy a four-cylinder vehicle specifically because of the engine. They generally buy from the lowest-cost producer with the highest quality and the lowest fuel economy, and that’s good enough. I think that will be the case with electric machines, which by the way will be very inexpensive to produce,” he said.

Robertson is paying close attention to developments in e-motor technology. He said nothing “revolutionary” has emerged recently, but there is a lot of work being done on improving the design of rotors and magnets to raise efficiency, in both induction and permanent-magnet type machines, he reported.

He’s also unsure where the industry will place its bets regarding EV and hybrid traction motor design, engineering, and manufacturing. Will OEMs bring it all in house, outsource it—or do some of both? Different strategies already are emerging from various OEMs but there is no common approach, Robertson said.

“The OEMs have always claimed the powertrain will remain theirs,” Robertson said, “because they see it as a product differentiator, based on power characteristics, image, and because it’s flexible technology—you can add to it to give it a different flavor. How electrification affects this strategy is not yet clear.”

Robertson said much of his focus and that of Magna’s advanced-technology planners is aimed at investigating and applying alternative energy sources and advanced materials to future vehicle systems.

“Just getting the U.S. fleet-averaged fuel efficiency to the 35.5 mpg mandated for 2016 is going to take a tremendous amount of investment and engineering. But it’s not going to stop there,” he said.

Already, pressure is mounting from various regulatory and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to go beyond the 2016 regulations in terms of greater fuel economy and reduced CO2, Robertson noted. He said the most serious problem facing the global auto industry is establishing new energy sources to ultimately replace petroleum as mobility’s primary fuel.

Among the most promising technology solutions being investigated by Magna for future vehicles are increased vehicle electrification, enabled by more powerful electronic controls, as well as bio-engineered materials for powertrain and vehicle structure applications, Robertson said.

“We need much more flexible vehicle architectures; the new bio-materials will enable us to architect the vehicles to optimize packaging of the battery packs and electric drive systems,” as well as offer new exterior “skin” forms, Robertson said.

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