The general trend in air conditioning is towards increased climate comfort in the vehicle, with a concomitant decrease in emissions and fuel consumption for the operation of the air conditioning system. Enhanced climate comfort requires increased cooling capacity and faster cabin cooling and heating. The high efficiency of direct-injection engines - for diesel engines and, in future, for petrol as well - has created the need for auxiliary heating systems.

There are basically three types of air conditioner:

  • mechanical;
  • semi-automatic; and
  • fully automatic systems.

In a mechanical air conditioning system, there is only a simple control for output adjustment. The other functions such as temperature setting, air distribution and blower are operated manually/mechanically. At the next level, the semi-automatic air conditioning unit, there is an additional interior temperature control. The user determines the desired temperature. The electronics do the rest and calculate an output temperature for the air in the vehicle interior from the specification and the outside temperature. The fully automatic air conditioning units offer maximum comfort. In addition to the semi-automatic functions, the blower output and air distribution are automatically adjustable. An automatic climate control system incorporating a pre-selection feature can automatically maintain the correct temperature, air flow and air distribution in the cabin. These parameters are mutually independent. Changes in one will affect the others. At the heart of the system is a temperature-control circuit for interior temperatures. The control unit continuously monitors both the pre-selection temperature and other variables, using this information to calculate a setpoint. The setpoint is compared with the actual temperature and the control unit uses the difference between the two as the basis for determining the required heating, refrigeration and air-flow rate.

All the major manufacturers are now working to enhance the air conditioner system through the use of multi-zone control. This has the advantage of allowing the rear seat passengers to adjust their localised climate control. In a multi-zone system, two HVAC modules are required - one for the front of a car and one for the rear - each with a blower motor, heater core and evaporator.

While air conditioning is already standard in upper-medium and luxury cars, fitment rates grow continuously in the small and medium car market. In North America and Japan, over 90% of all cars today are equipped with air conditioning systems whereas in Europe, we estimate the rate was 66% in 2002. Europe is regarded as one of the major growth markets, as we predict that installation rates should rise to 79% by 2007. There will be continued strong growth in the European small car sector, we predict installation rates will grow from 38% in 2002 to 48% by 2010.

Mechanic controls currently dominate the European market, with the trend moving towards automatic and semi-automatic systems. Although manually adjusted thermostatic controls still dominate the European market, they are gradually losing ground, as they have done in the US and Japan, to automatic and semi-automatic systems. In Europe, we estimate that 32% - 35% of cars have some sort of automatic climate control, and predict that this could easily reach 40% by 2005. That is up from less than 10% in 1999.

At a global level, Denso is believed to dominate the air conditioning market with around 25% share, closely followed by the Valeo/Zexel alliance, Visteon, Delphi, Behr and Calsonic Kansei.

Shares of the global OE HVAC unit market, 2002 (% of volume)

Calsonic Kansei
Sources: ABOUT Automotive; industry estimates.

However, the competition is not market driven but OEM driven, i.e. companies compete for contracts from existing customers as barriers to gain new customers are very high. "It comes down to technology and price," said one supplier. It is still a dogfight. There are a lot of offensive and defensive measures being taken by the suppliers to protect and grow their business. As with most components, before awarding a contract the carmakers consider quality to be as important as price in their deliberations. As another supplier said: "We've won some business not because we were the lowest price bidder - we weren't - but because the quality of our climate control system was just that little bit better than the competition. Because there are so few suppliers in the marketplace, the little (quality) things can make the difference." Therefore, overall market shares are not necessarily an indicator of a company's strength in a market.

Expert Analysis

The global market for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning 2004

This brand new study comprehensively updates ABOUT Automotive's original report on the global market for automotive climate control technologies, originally published in 2001. A significant part of the research findings are based on extensive primary research within the automotive HVAC sector and the report also includes the results of interviews conducted at the recent Frankfurt motor show. It will provide you with analysis on a number of key areas, including: The market for automotive climate control, determining the trends and topical issues; The main manufacturers serving this sector, identifying how the market is divided in terms of market share and value on a regional basis; Trends in key product and process technologies, both current and future; and OEM trends and rationale in adopting different types of climate control. Find out more here.


Although air conditioning is regarded as a necessity in North America and Japan - with installation rates close to 95% - Europeans also regard it as an essential in their cars. With many upper medium and premium cars in Europe being equipped already with air conditioning as standard, a major area of competition is now the mini and small car market. ABOUT Automotive estimate that around 66% of all passenger cars in Western Europe were fitted with air conditioning systems last year (2002), and have the potential to reach 79% by 2007 and 85% by the end of this decade. That is up from 12% in 1990.

Despite the maturity of the market in Japan and North America, the technical boundaries of air conditioning systems continue to be pushed back, meeting the vehicle makers' demands for higher efficiency and reduced weight, size and cost.

The expanding European car parc with air conditioning continues to spell out good news for the aftermarket and specialist service providers. The market for air conditioning repair continues to grow, helped by what seems to be high failure rates as well as road accident repairs.

Air conditioning systems are increasingly required to have environmentally friendly credentials. The use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) has been phased out in most industrial applications. During the 1990s, the auto industry switched from the so-called R12 (Freon) refrigerant to the CFC-free R-134a refrigerant. Given that the days of R-134a refrigerant are numbered, most manufacturers are at full tilt toward developing CO2 solutions. They include Denso, Behr, Visteon, Modine and Valeo. Denso developed the world's first non-fluorocarbon car air conditioning system that uses CO2 and began supplying it for Toyota's fuel cell hybrid vehicle (FCHV-4) in December 2002.

While the use of CO2 to heat and cool the cabin is promising, it requires new heat exchangers and the redesign of a number of components. The highly pressurised systems must also have fail-safe mechanisms to protect the mechanics who subsequently repair them. The operational pressure applied to the CO2 refrigerating agent will be up to 140 bars - around five times higher than the pressure when operated by R-134a systems.

This summary has been taken from a new report on the global market for automotive HVAC systems from ABOUT Automotive. Further details of this research can be found here.