Electrifying Automobiles: The Simplistic, Efficient and Effective Micro Hybrid

Last month, the Swedish auto manufacturer Volvo, owned by Chinese automotive company Zhejiang Geely Holding Co., Ltd, announced that starting in 2019 the car maker will only produce electric, plug-in hybrid and “mild hybrid” vehicles by 2019.

The very next day, Nicolas Hulot, the French environmental minister, made the announcement that France will set the target to end the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040.  Although France’s target is not as aggressive as those set by Norway (2025) or India (2030), the movement is clear, the electrification of automobiles is well underway.

Hakan Samuelsson, CEO of the Volvo division, said that just two years ago he and his board had doubts about electric cars, but the situation has changed rapidly.  Economies like China and the European Union seek leadership in alternative energy and these disruptive technologies are setting the direction for the industry.  Volvo as an organization has a unique view to these markets and recognizes the inevitable change, and Volvo, with its announcement,  had the best PR.

In this quest to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions to meet government mandates, global automakers have developed several powertrain options, including smaller, more highly-charged gasoline and diesel engines, turbochargers, variable valve timing and sophisticated direct injection engines, with the next levels of powertrain technologies having various levels of electrification built into each one.

As with any form of technology, each has its advantages and shortfalls. All of them, however, offer significant CO2 reduction opportunities to meet requirements around the world. Integrating various degrees of electrification with the standard internal combustion engine (ICE) offers automakers a selection of hybrid powertrain options.  As car companies consider these options, the most simplistic and cost effective option is the micro hybrid.  (For an overview of the various electrification options being employed today, up to and including the fully-electric, zero-emissions category please see my previous article Electrifying Automobiles: The Multiple levels of Vehicle Electrification.)

A micro hybrid utilizes the standard ICE, but substitutes the standard alternator with a 12-volt belt-integrated starter generator or BiSG.  This minor change allows the engine to stop running when the vehicle is braked at idle, such as when at a traffic signal, but restarts instantaneously (<400 milliseconds) as soon as the driver releases the brake pedal.  Therefore, this is known alternatively in the market place as a stop/start system.

The belt-integrated starter generator replaces both the conventional starter and alternator (generator) of an automobile in a single electric device.  It allows greater electrical generation capacity and the fuel economy and emissions benefits of hybrid electric automotive propulsion.  This system can provide modest levels of power assist during launch and acceleration.  Although unable to operate in pure all-electric mode, the stop/start system provides improvements to both city and highway fuel efficiency over similar non-hybrid vehicles or those with only a standard ICE.

Micro hybrid technology offers OEMs a low-cost (an additional $100 U.S.), easily-adaptable way to improve fuel efficiency (usually 2-6%) and reduce CO2 emissions by about 3%. It’s estimated that as much as 17.2% of vehicle inefficiency (fuel consumption, exhaust) comes from engine idling. Indeed, some estimates calculate that just five minutes of engine idling can consume .01 to .04 liters of fuel, and over the course of a year, fuel wasted can add up to as much as 20 gallons. In the United States, idling wastes approximately 3.9 billion gallons of gasoline per year.  In several European countries, including Germany, drivers are required to shut off their engines at active railroad crossings, primarily for environmental reasons.

The internal combustion engine will someday be phased out by battery powered electric vehicles, but until that happens, hybrid alternatives, like the micro hybrid will move the industry towards that eventual direction.  And this is where it is important to the Volvo PR coup of the month because it is worth noting that “mild hybrids” like in the Volvo announcement can be defined as a stop/start system or a vehicle utilize a standard BiSG.  So, is the Volvo announcement really that big of a deal when today 90% of vehicles produced in Europe have this simple stop/start feature?

The Audi A4 is an excellent application of micro hybrid technology, and it’s estimated that by 2020 more than 50% of vehicles produced globally will have micro hybrid technology, while still relying on ever higher fuel efficient ICE propulsion. In the U.S., Ford is betting heavily on micro hybrid technology by making the feature standard beginning with its top-selling F-150 Eco-Boost pick-up trucks.

The announcements made by France and Volvo are simply stating the obvious; that the electrification of the automobile is well underway, and the micro hybrid is a perfect example of the first phase of this disruption.

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