Automakers Invest In Building Electric Motor Technology

February 27, 2010/Steve Tackett


Carmakers are concluding that not only is the future electric, but also that if they are going to compete effectively, then they need to possess the knowledge to build electric motors themselves — rather than buy electric motors from suppliers.
Virtually all carmakers build their own gasoline motors today, and if their products are going to rely on electric motors, then manufacturers are increasingly going to be reluctant to depend on outside suppliers for critical components. Today, most electric cars are powered by motors made by electronics specialists such as Hitachi — but that’s about to change.
General Motors and BMW have both announced that they will build their own electric motors for future models to ensure their continuing competitiveness.
“We intend to lead the industry in advanced propulsion technology,” vowed Tom Stephens, General Motors vice chairman of global product operations. The company believes that its unique automotive requirements mean it can build electric motors better for cars than electronics suppliers can.
“Automotive electric motors have far more rigorous demands than electric motors for other applications,” he said.
Stephens points out that battery capacity right now is a limiting factor for the utility of electric cars, so the potential to use every watt stored in the batteries as efficiently as possible holds the potential for increased range through improved motors rather than just improved batteries.
“By making motors in-house we can improve them, thereby improving the efficiency of the battery,” he said.
Stephens likened this to boosting the fuel efficiency of existing gasoline engines, while improving the capacity of batteries is more akin to enlarging the gas tank in conventional cars. “Nobody talks about having a bigger gas tank,” he joked.
GM’s first electric motor will be used in the next generation of the company’s rear-drive two-mode hybrid-electric system seen in its full-size SUVs and pickups. The company already assembles those two-mode hybrid transmissions in its White Marsh, Md. plant, using supplied electric motors, but GM will add manufacturing of motors to the plant, too. The company predicts that its new electric motors will be 20 percent more powerful than its current motors and they will be 20 percent smaller and lighter.
BMW, meanwhile, is also moving toward building electric motors for a planned “Mega City Vehicle” designed for population centers of more than 10 million people. The company will start by building the electric motor and single-speed transmission for the ActiveE BMW 1 Series-based battery electric vehicle test fleet.
These cars will replace the MiniE electric Mini Coopers that the company is testing now. Surveys of drivers of these cars indicate that some of the expected limitations relating to range have proved to be overblown, and in fact one-third of drivers are using the electric cars more than they drove the gas vehicles they replaced, reports Rich Steinberg, manager of electric vehicle operations and strategy for BMW of North America.
This ready consumer acceptance of electric drive and the satisfaction with the MiniE’s 100-mile maximum range underscored for BMW that electric motor know-how will be critical in the future.
The company is also getting experience with battery technology by assembling lithium-ion battery cells provided by SB Limotive into automotive battery packs.
“This is an area where we think we are good and that we can differentiate ourselves,” said Steinberg.
Electric cars are coming. And automakers are preparing to compete with one another on new terms just as they do today on horsepower, fuel economy and number of cylinders. — Dan Carney, Motor Matters

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2010