An expert panel at last week's Embedded Systems Conference said automakers will need to step up the pace of innovation in the energy efficiency arena and will need suppliers to help them do it.
The panelists, speaking at a session called "Innovation in Electronics: Crisis or Promise," said delivering on the promise of alternative energy sources is a formidable task that calls for a level of collaboration that hasn't been the norm in the auto industry.
"Design teams are running very lean and are looking to suppliers for innovation," said Ronn Kliger, director of the energy segment for Analog Devices, Inc. "Suppliers are going to need to move out of their comfort zone."
Kliger called on the suppliers to become experts in related automotive technologies as a means of bringing innovations to production vehicles.
He joined fellow panelists John Day of Microchip Technology, Sameer Prabhu of The MathWorks, and John Mastropietro of Avnet, as well as moderators Brian Fuller of EE Times and myself, in analyzing the energy efficiency issues facing the auto industry.
Panelists at the session agreed that the auto industry's energy challenges are bigger than many in the public believe. They said the low energy density and high cost of electric vehicle (EV) batteries still present a growth obstacle for pure electric vehicles.
"Does anyone here know how many kilowatt-hours of energy are in a gallon of gasoline?" asked Day, a technical fellow for field applications at Microchip Technology. Day said the answer -- 30 -- is actually more than the amount of energy in some EV batteries being used today.
He also said some of the well-publicized solutions, such as pure electric cars and fuel cell vehicles, don't have as much near-term promise as hybrids. Hydrogen fuel cells still have issues with outgassing and storage, and pure electrics can still benefit from the extra energy that a couple of gallons of gasoline can provide. "There are innovations that are a combination of electric and mechanical technologies" -- hybrids -- "and they can boost your efficiency by 20 percent."
Prabhu, industry marketing director for The MathWorks, said simulation will be critical as automakers collaborate on their designs with large numbers of suppliers in the future. "They need to do a good job of integrating the entire system. That becomes a bigger challenge when you have so many design teams from so many different suppliers."
Asked to name some of the "coolest" innovations in the quest for energy efficiency, the panelists cited LEDs, battery management systems, split-cycle engines, new battery chemistries, and plug-in hybrids.
However, the consensus was that much more innovation is needed, and that engineers will have to adapt to new ways of thinking to make it happen.
"Forty years ago, car engineers were all mechanical engineers," Prabbhu said. "Now, we're seeing mechanical, electrical, electronic, even specialists such as radar engineers." In the future, he said, automotive engineers will have to be open to such cross-disciplinary approaches.
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