The United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR) recently approved the formation of a new working group whose goal will be to guide a major change in the electrical architecture that powers American vehicles.

Most vehicles today employ 14-volt systems. (Fourteen is the operating voltage of what is commonly referred to as today's 12-volt system). However, the U.S. auto industry may someday soon be using higher voltage. Leaders from USCAR member companies -- DaimlerChyrsler, Ford and General Motors (GM) -- have been discussing addressing the issues faced in converting to a 42-volt system cooperatively.

The three companies have recognized that there is significant benefit to joint development of a new architecture. Because the 42-volt research extends far beyond the work USCAR has been conducting on its Electrical Wiring Component Application Partnership (EWCAP), the 42-volt members chose to form a new group. The USCAR Joint Support Committee agreed at its September meeting to give the researchers official status as a USCAR working group.

Increased electrical power demands for future vehicles are driving the conversion as a means to offset the resulting cost and mass increases and packaging challenges associated with increased power. Increased power demand raises the cost, size and packaging of vehicles and vehicle components.

Group chairman Dennis Wiese, of GM, emphasizes that while a 42-volt system will not directly give systems more power, it could have some very important benefits in application.

"Forty-two volts generally allows wires and some semiconductor switches, and thus some electronics, to be smaller. This can enable manufacturers to employ designs that promote fuel and system efficiency, " he said.

The higher voltage system will likely be the choice for new architectures and fuel cell powered vehicles. Customer-friendly options that have been otherwise unavailable with only 14-volt power, such as electrically heated catalytic converters and drive-by-wire systems, could become part of future vehicles.

There are multiple benefits that could potentially result from a higher voltage system. These include:

* New technology allowing engines to shut down during idle periods (i.e., at stop signs or traffic lights) could be implemented;

* Engine cooling systems could be driven entirely by the electrical system;

* Engine accessories such as steering and air conditioning could potentially be run entirely off the electrical system;

* For similar power level components, smaller gauge wires would result from a higher voltage reducing the size and weight of wiring bundles and harness assemblies; and

* Electric valve timing could be manipulated in order to maintain greater control over emissions and/or performance.

The group's evaluation of the conversion has identified a number of challenges as well. Wiese said the group's research will specifically focus on issues concerning:

* Voltage regulation;
* Vehicle roadside assistance;
* Safety perceptions;
* Corrosion;
* Aftermarket loads;
* Tools and equipment; and
* Regulations and standards.

Wiese said an essential detail of the 42-Volt Working Group's functioning is that there would be no competition with groups that are already doing work in addressing the conversion challenges. Instead, the group will work from the OEM-side to make common decisions that would allow existing work to accelerate.

"First of all, we're going to make decisions towards commonizing and standardizing. We're also going to co-fund studies that address fundamental challenges," he said.

The group has already met with suppliers who will ultimately provide the materials that will go into the new systems. Suppliers helped the group identify major obstacles in initiating a conversion. Wiese said they have agreed on several areas where the OEM's, through the 42-Volt Working Group, can help make the transition easier and faster. Priorities for working in non-competitive arenas with suppliers include:

* Commonization of needs;
* Identification of issue priorities;
* Providing a unified communication effort; and
* Agreement on specifications.

Ultimately, Wiese expects this joint work will benefit USCAR member companies' customers and stockholders by reducing the cost, improving the quality and optimizing the timing of the member companies' inevitable conversion to a 42-volt system.

The group's workload should be heavy over the next 18 months, with converted vehicle components beginning to appear in the United States in about 2003.

"My prediction is that in 2003 model year vehicles you will start to see a 42-volt system in different places in a vehicle. As the companies do major changes in a model, you will see it more and more -- with it being most prevalent in vehicles that require a lot of power or are ecology-focused," Wiese said.