The recent focus on the electrification of cars is arguably the biggest shift the automotive sector has seen in a century.
While electric cars were popular at the dawn of the car age at the turn of the 20th century, Carl Benz’s model for the internal combustion engine won the day. Since then the car industry has concentrated its efforts on improving the petrol engine and, more latterly, diesel engines.
Now the internal combustion engine is facing its biggest challenge for 100 years.
Initially, modern interest in electric vehicles (EVs) has been based on environmental concerns. As cities grew, inhabitants railed against some of the health problems associated with breathing products of petrol and diesel combustion. We are now increasingly aware of extreme weather patterns and the issues around climate change, so consumers are now more receptive to alternatives to the internal combustion engine – one of the major causes of carbon dioxide emissions.
But if EVs are to really take off, their performance must improve.
One of the key inhibitors to the adoption of electric powered cars back in Edwardian times was concerns over the distance vehicles could cover before the battery died out – and so it is today. However, developments are being made in this area all the time. Most recently, German electronics firm Bosch is reported to be working on a solid state battery that by 2020 could allow EVs to travel 200 miles per charge – around twice as far as they currently can.
While improvements to batteries are being made, a bridging solution towards total electric vehicles are hybrid cars, where an electric motor works in unison with, but can also work independently of, an internal combustion engine which tend to be smaller and lighter than those found in a similar pure-internal combustion engine vehicle.
Drivers of hybrids will notice a few differences compared with driving pure internal combustion engine vehicles. For one thing, when the electric motor kicks in, it is much quieter than the internal combustion engine. Another noticeable difference is the quicker acceleration that is offered by electric motors, which provide torque instantly, compared with internal combustion engines that build-up speed more gradually.
Car manufacturers are taking advantage of this torque in a number of ways. One is so-called torque vectoring which involves varying the amount of torque that is delivered to each wheel as the vehicle is turning.
World-leading supplier of automotive driveline systems, GKN, has used the technology in its eAxle functionality, which is used in the BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car. The company says the systems will help “bring a new generation of electric drive vehicles to life.”
Bosch is again a leader in this field and recently developed a new torque-vectoring function that features a separate electric motor to drive each axle or even each individual wheel.
Because the system brakes and accelerates the wheels individually, road-holding is said to be vastly improved, and it is hoped the function will one day improve sports car cornering and make SUVs easier to handle on challenging terrain.