They can adjust your seat and headlights, power side window and mirrors, assist braking and steering and are found in anything that has an electrical movement or solenoid function.  With as many as 120 electric motors stuffed into a luxury car, Matthew Beecham reports on some promising market applications.

As electric motors proliferate around the car, manufacturers have developed lighter and more compact units. Manufacturers are also working on ways to reduce the size of automotive electric motors while retaining or improving existing performance. Overall, the main drivers of electric motor development are power density, size, weight, noise and functionality.
Releasing the brake on the EPB market

The electric parking brake (EPB) system replaces mechanical parking brakes and the bulky mechanisms associated with them, such as hand levers or foot pedals in the interior of the vehicle and cable mechanisms and cables running through the vehicle. EPBs simplify manufacturing efficiency by using fewer parts.

"We see an electric parking brake as a breakthrough into the market," said Dr Ralf Cramer, executive vice president, electronic brake and safety systems, Continental Automotive Systems.  "There are different concepts: it can be achieved via an integrated caliper -- which is what we are doing-- or it can be achieved via cable pullers.  The latter is a separate stand-alone solution which may be integrated more or less into every car.  It is pretty independent."

Europe currently represents the biggest market for EPB systems.  Given that at least 90% of vehicles built in North America are equipped with automatic gearboxes (and therefore utilise the park lock position) and most roads in the US are flat, interest in EPBs is very low among automakers. Cramer added: "Demand for EPB in Europe is higher than in North America. There are other requirements in the US but they have a very high installation rate of automatics.  We can combine automatics with parking brakes and other functionalities such as hill start assist. That is a function that we see customers really enjoying.  So is more a comfort feature than a safety feature."

Powerful mirrors

Across Europe, power-folding mirrors have long been popular in the luxury segment, not only helping to prevent damage from passing vehicles in congested streets and assist parking but also serving partly as a deterrent to vandals.  "The power folding mirror market is still growing in Europe," said Ramon Guixa, director of Ficosa's rearview systems business.  "In fact, it is exceeding our expectations.  I would say that it has increased by more than 100% compared to three years ago. At this moment, we are strongly investing to increase our capacity to meet demand."

In Japan, the exterior door mirror market is said to be especially lucrative given that the majority of new cars are equipped with power-folding mirrors, enabling them to squeeze through narrow, city streets. 

In North America, however, demand for power-folding mirrors is being driven by a totally different need.  An auto executive told us: "The Japanese market [for power-folding mirrors] is probably already maxed-out. In the US, however we saw no potential but surprisingly because of the growing size of the SUVs, they have a problem parking in the garage. So, all the really big SUVs in the US have them."

You'll need to sit down for this

Although power seats were typically reserved for premium cars, that is no longer the case. Seat manufacturers report that the power option is now being offered in lower segment cars, too. More specifically, they note that the percentage of take-rates for the power option is growing in the market in general, particularly in North America.

While electric DC motors have long since raised the comfort levels for front seat passengers, there are signs that such motors are appearing in the rear seats too. Imtiyaz Syed, vice president, engineering, Intier Automotive Seating, told us: "Power is definitely coming to the rear seats as well.  For example, rear seat heating systems are fairly common in premium cars.  There is also powered stow systems in the third row whereby just pressing a button, the whole articulation takes places so that the seat folds and stows into the floor automatically.  We have also developed the ability to power removable seats.  With our design, the seat is automatically connected and powered when installed in the vehicle and disconnected when removed without the consumer having to [physically] disconnect the seat before removing it."

"That is in production on the Chrysler minivan Swivel Seats," added Randy Koenigsknecht, vice president, sales and marketing, Intier Automotive Seating.  "We had to make it very robust and almost invisible to the customer so that they do not even realize that the connection/disconnection is being made and, of course, they do not experience any error in that connection."

"But it doesn't stop there," said Syed.  "The Lincoln MKX and Ford Edge feature powered seat back fold down on their rear seats. I think that the power growth trend for the rear seat will continue for some time to come."

On that basis, we expect to see a steady increase amongst the mid-range vehicles as additional automotive safety and comfort features are increasingly being developed. 

Window of opportunity

In 1963, Germany's Brose began mass production of electric window regulators for the European market.  The BMW 3200 CS coupé was the first vehicle to be equipped with this product. Since then, a number of innovations have been added to power windows including anti-pinch and one-touch operation.

The power window lift market is almost mature in Europe and the US, with the vast majority of new cars featuring electrically-operated front windows.  Rear power window fitment is catching up fast. In the 1990s, both regional markets were characterized by electric motors in the front doors with manual mechanisms in the rear.  These motors tended to be heavy and large although manufacturers are now busy developing slimmer units. The trend has moved toward more use of integrated electronics with anti-pinch technology.  In terms of design, the main thrust of R&D is centred on lightweight, smaller, quieter units, and longer life units.

Power windows have been scrutinised in recent years following a number of fatal accidents in which children's necks have become trapped resulting in suffocation.  Consequently, anti-pinch windows have appeared on certain vehicles.  Also, some vehicles are fitted with a driver-controlled lock-out switch which prevents the windows being accidentally activated by children while climbing into their seat or simply using them as toys. Organisations such as Kids and Cars have made great strides towards raising awareness of such serious health and safety issues.

As one door closes, another opens

The popularity of multi-purpose vehicles in Europe, Japan and the US has spurred many innovations, not least power sliding doors.  The first powered closure systems appeared on the automotive market in 1999.  They relied on electro-hydraulic drive units but their application was limited due to cost constraints.  In 2002, Citroen (C8 model), Fiat (Ulysse), Lancia (Phedra) and Peugeot (807) became the first European carmakers to offer mass production vehicles fitted with an electric power sliding door. Since then, the Peugeot 1007 became the first small car to feature a single motorised door on both sides, power-assisted throughout the operating range. Previously, power sliding doors have been restricted to one rear door on some minivans.  Each door has a cable drive unit mounted under the rear floor, controlled by a shared electronic control unit mounted under a front seat.  Peugeot also committed a lot of development resources to the electric sliding doors on its new 1007 model.

Toyota has also been a major player in the design and development of sliding doors for small passenger cars, as its Raum, Sienta, Porte, Gaia and Isis models show. Most have hinging front doors and sliding rear doors, though the Porte has sliding front doors only.

While interest in power sliding doors increases, the potential of the total market, however, should not be confined to side doors but sliding doors and rear liftgates. Some manufacturers see a number of opportunities in liftgate modules, especially when combined with power product technologies and advancements in lighter materials, such as aluminium and plastics.

Power to the people

Overall, although electric motors have long since been used in wiper systems and to power engine-cooling fans, these markets have matured.  There are, however, some promising applications to improve comfort and convenience, such as powered rear seats and rear liftgates.  Electric steering is also becoming a common feature in small cars while EPBs show great promise.

Matthew Beecham