Air conditioning is becoming another 'must have' comfort feature in all cars.  According to Behr's commissioned consumer research of 400 German car owners, the climate control system has become one of the most important features of automotive comfort.  During this survey, conducted earlier this year, 53% mentioned it without prompting, compared to 28% in 1995.  In contrast, the importance of the sunroof has sharply declined from 34% in 1995 to 13% in 2001.  The German air conditioner and engine cooling supplier also found that, in addition to ease of operation, automatic functioning is highly rated for air conditioner systems and the absence of it is often considered a negative feature.

While air conditioning is regarded as a necessity in North America and Japan—with installation rates well above 90%—Europeans also regard it as being 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"
a major area of competition is now the mini and small car market.  We estimate that around 65% of all passenger cars in Europe were fitted with air-conditioning systems last year, with potential to reach 75-80% by 2005.  This is a huge rise from the 12% fitment rate in 1990.  They include the entire range of air conditioners from manual control to the more sophisticated automatic climate control which adds on-board diagnostics, multiplex wiring and in-car temperature and humidity sensors to maintain temperatures within one degree of pre-set limits.  Fitment rates are rising fast in other regions, too.  In South America, for example, air conditioner rates for all vehicles is currently around 43%.  Manufacturers predict that figure could reach 56% by 2005.

The expanding parc of vehicles with air conditioning spells out good news for the aftermarket and specialist service providers.  According to industry predictions, the UK air conditioning aftermarket business alone is worth around £12 million.  That figure could rise to £24 million in 2002 and £31 million by 2005.  Although the profit potential for garages is great, the relatively high investment in equipment required to service air conditioners is felt by some to be the main reason for slow take up. 

On the world stage, Denso leads the market for vehicle air conditioning systems, followed by the Valeo/Zexel alliance, Visteon, Delphi, Behr and Calsonic.  In Europe, Behr reckons it has the marginal lead over Valeo in terms of units sold last year, followed by Denso (and its newly acquired Magneti Marelli business), Visteon, Delphi and Calsonic.  In North America, the big four manufacturers are Delphi, Visteon, Denso and Valeo.  In South America, Valeo has the strongest market position, followed by Denso, Delphi, Visteon and Behr.  In Japan, Denso leads the market head and shoulder over Calsonic, Keihin, Valeo/Zexel and Japan Climate Control Systems.

Merger and acquisition activity in the HVAC sector has been intense over the last year or so, with Denso's acquisition of Magneti Marelli's Thermal Systems division and the Valeo and Zexel tie-up dominating the news headlines.

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, industry analysts estimate that 32-35% of cars have some sort of automatic climate control,"
In Europe, industry analysts estimate that 32-35% of cars have some sort of automatic climate control, predicting that this could easily reach 40% by 2005.  That's up from less than 10% in 1999.  Behr was the first to enter the European market with automatic climate control, supplying some Audi and Porsche models in 1987.  In the UK, manufacturers estimate that the automatic climate control market is approaching 30% fitment rates.  But the fitment of automatic systems is no longer the sole preserve of luxury cars.  VW offer dual zone climate control on the Golf.  In the US, although dual zone has featured in the high-end car market for some time, it has only recently started to proliferate in lower segments as an option.  General Motors, for example, are currently offering dual-zone air conditioning systems as standard equipment on some mid-range cars.

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.  Behr's system, for example, is located between the front seats and contains a separate blower, evaporator, heater core and a control for the left and right sides of the rear area.  A recent development by Behr, which cools the interior in four separate zones, does not require the additional aggregates at the rear.

Meanwhile, Denso engineers are also applying neural network control to automotive air conditioning systems.  Air conditioning systems with neural network control provides left-right multi-zone temperature and airflow control for each seat by sensing the seat temperature, passenger compartment temperature, amount of sunlight as well as simulating the operation of the biological nervous system. 


"Neural network control requires 2.5 times more processing capacity than conventional control for automatic air conditioners"
Neural network control requires 2.5 times more processing capacity than conventional control for automatic air conditioners.  Fulfilling the potential of neural network technology in automotive air conditioning therefore will depend partly on fast microprocessors and large-capacity memory chips.  Denso introduced the system in 1998.  It supplies it to three vehicle models.  Denso expects carmakers to adopt this control technology in nearly all luxury passenger cars by 2005, migrating to the medium-priced vehicle models soon afterwards. 

Higher cooling performances, however, demand larger compressors.  But space constraints, especially in smaller cars, oppose this trend, encouraging manufacturers to reduce the mass of the compressor and condenser.

An additional challenge for manufacturers is that air conditioning systems are increasingly being expected not only to cool vehicle interiors but also have demisting, air cleaning and circulation properties.  These are features which can increase their attractiveness beyond markets in warmer climates.  Air conditioning systems have therefore become safety enhancing components as well as offering increased comfort for vehicle occupants. 

Systems integration is another important element.  Air conditioning suppliers are also increasingly realising that their systems cannot be developed in isolation from other parts of a vehicle.  Cost and space demands are driving a trend towards integration of air conditioning systems into the dashboard and other interior and exterior components and systems.

Despite some significant advances to improve air conditioner efficiency, there are still concerns about fuel consumption.  Research studies point out that typical fuel consumption can rise by 11% when the air conditioning system is switched on.  Cooling a vehicle that has been exposed to direct sunlight can push that penalty to 15% when the air conditioning system is first used.  Even when driving in spring or autumn temperatures, switching on the air conditioning system can raise fuel consumption by 5%.

Studies at the National Energy Renewable Laboratory (NERL) in Colorado, US have also examined the effect of air conditioning on vehicle performance.  Researchers are trying to reduce the energy used for climate control by 50-75%.  At present, the power needed to drive an air-conditioning compressor can be more than that required to move a mid-sized car at a constant 35 mph, drawing up to 7kw of power.  NERL estimates that 10.6 billion gallons of petrol are used every year to power the units.  NERL tests show that hydrocarbon emissions in conventional vehicles rise from between 4-50% with the air-conditioner on, while CO emissions rise 11-125% and NO emissions rise 29-113%.  To reduce the power consumed, researchers suggest the use of advanced window glazing to reduce thermal gain inside vehicles, and the use of recirculated air (instead of outside air) to reduce system power demand.  Other possible solutions are ventilating seats to improve occupant comfort and generally increasing air circulation inside the cabin.

 


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