Economy and efficiency were the focus of the international automotive supplier Continental at this year’s commercial vehicle show in Hanover. The supplier used the show to present a number of novel technologies, products and services, with which truck makers can make their vehicles safer, more economical and cleaner, as well as network them more intelligently.  In the first of three interviews with Continental, Matthew Beecham talked with José Avila, Head of Continental’s Powertrain Division about the prospects for the hybrid and electric vehicle market.

As we understand it, Continental’s powertrain engineers made the decision a few years ago to concentrate on conventional electric motors for electrified vehicles rather than the more efficient versions based upon permanent magnets. Could you remind us of the reasons behind that choice? 

The bottom line is that externally excited motors are very high performing. Our decision also means that we are not dependent on rare earth magnets for the rotor. The question of what will happen to the price of magnets is still open – so only time will tell how wise the decision was in that respect. But from a strictly performance standpoint, it was the right one.

The big question facing electric vehicles is “What now?” Because no matter how you slice it, not a lot of electric vehicles are being sold. They are not living up to expectations and the incentives are not large enough. The fact that we are still in a developing field makes it very hard to predict what will happen.

You mentioned there about your potential dependence on magnets had you gone down that route. I guess Continental predicted that the growing demand for electric vehicles would put pressure on the price of magnets since resources are limited… 

It depends on the type of metal. In the case of high-performance magnet metals, the price went up dramatically and then stabilized before decreasing slightly. I suspect the suppliers realized they had much more power and acted on it.

That price spike prompted interest in the development of alternative sources such as new mines, but it takes a couple of years before the output is available. So you have to wonder what is going to happen. Will people keep chasing the curve as the price is pushed up and then relaxed again just to discourage other approaches? We still feel that our approach is pretty clever and are sticking with it.

What are your forecasts for the proportions of, say, hybrid and electric vehicles in Europe?

Let’s start by looking at where we are today. Whether we’re talking about electric vehicles or the highly engineered hybrids, consumer reception has been less enthusiastic than anticipated. These are costly devices, after all, and the payback is not so clear. So there is obviously a lot of accommodating and rethinking going on. We are working very aggressively on cost to significantly cut the cost of things like battery modules and high-power electronics.

In the hybrid market I also see a tendency towards what I call the micro-hybrid, which is an extension of the start-stop system. These are belt-driven machines; for example a 48-volt system that gives you a 10-percent improvement in fuel economy. That’s a nice improvement in fuel economy at an overall cost that is obviously much less than a full hybrid.

By how much?

The cost I’d say is about 20 percent of a full hybrid. And I think the approach is gaining momentum –which should allow it to be sold more across Europe and the USA.

In the USA, the way the regulations are written means that the incentives are in terms of footprint –it’s about downsizing the car’s carbon footprint rather than reducing the weight of the vehicle.  The plug-in hybrid therefore looks like a very good alternative. While still costly, a plug-in hybrid that gives drivers a 30-kilometer range will allow them to stay fully electric from Monday through Friday and then use the range on weekends when it’s really needed.

So the hybrid market is moving toward the plug-in hybrid or the micro-hybrid, which can be seen as an extension of start-stop. And I believe the potential is now fairly good – with the fuel economy laws in place – and that we have to think very holistically about fuel economy in the industry, with a lot of effort going into optimizing every possible aspect.

Where is the fully electric vehicle market heading?

It is hard to say. There will be some government moves, maybe sponsored projects to promote it, but so far we haven’t seen significant volumes. Even less so in Europe, where you have things like the diesel engine providing relatively good fuel economy. So I don’t think the numbers are going to be really significant on the fully electric side.

By 2020 hybrids could be approaching 10 percent of the global market and the electric vehicle might be somewhere between one and three percent – but it’s hard to say exactly at what point. Obviously we are working hard on the battery pack, which for electric vehicles is the most costly sub-system.

In the meantime, some drivers still have range anxieties…

Yes, some do. But recent studies suggest that the new generation does not have those concerns. Consumer habits can change, albeit slowly. For example the Toyota Prius took a while to really get traction. Right now we are in a kind of grey area – we have to wait and see where things go. I see a clearer path for hybridization because there is a very strong driving force towards fuel economy.

A couple of months ago, you presented a paper on electric mobility in which you talked about reducing the cost of electric vehicles and hybrids, specifically through the standardization of components.

It’ll be nice when that happens. It is difficult in the early days because manufacturers are competing with each other; everybody has a different technical idea. The first step we are taking is looking at the full bill of materials. Take a high-power electronics box with 2,500 to 3,000 components inside, for example. That is a huge number of parts, so we are breaking it down into component groups and trying to standardize as much as we can.

As we understand it, the Chinese government is making a strong push to full electrics. What do you see happening there?

The remainder of this interview is available on just-auto’s QUBE research service