The electric car is already with us!

All car types depend on electrotechnology

By Morand Fachot

Public attention is turning increasingly to the introduction of electric vehicles of all kinds. Where motor vehicles were originally almost entirely mechanical, they are now complex systems wholly dependent on thousands of electric and electronic components for safe and reliable running, a fact frequently overlooked. Dozens of IEC TCs (Technical Committees) and SCs (Subcommittees) prepare International Standards for these parts that will soon make up around 50% of the entire value of cars.

Denso alternator_org
IEC TC 55 developes International Standards for winding wires used in alternators (Photo: Denso)

Electric vehicles: early success

When motor vehicles were first introduced, electric cars were at the forefront of technology. The first car to be driven at a speed of over 100 km/h was electric, and this was as early as 1899. Electric cars also took part in endurance trials; in 1901, one of them managed to travel over 300 km. They also proved quite robust, initially outperforming vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, and were popular with taxi fleets and as delivery vans. There were around 35 000 electric vehicles in the US in 1912.

However, petrol-engine powered automobiles started outclassing their electric counterparts in terms of range and speed and eventually took over the market for personal vehicles.

Internal combustion needs electricity too…

Internal combustion engines need an ignition system. ITo begin with, hand cranks (or starting handles) were used to provide the necessary initial ignition. They were awkward and dangerous to use. Electric starter engines that could provide enough power to crank and start the engine were widely introduced from the 1920s and proved a major advance for internal combustion engines. They relied on a lead-acid battery for provision of sufficiently high voltage and current.

Besides starter engines, the other electrical systems first installed in cars were headlamps and tail lights, replacing acetylene and oil lamps. Additional lamps such as indicators were introduced later. Other electric components – for instance, alternators supplying electricity to electrical loads and batteries, ignition coils, windshield wipers, etc. – were introduced step by step.

The onslaught of electrical systems

For a long time, these types of electrical system were the only ones fitted to cars and were improved over time. Otherwise, manufacturers were concentrating on enhancing engine performance and on other mechanical systems such as gearboxes, as well as on the body work and interiors of their motor vehicles. They also introduced new systems to differentiate their products from the competition and to make them easier to drive and more appealing to buyers.

The importance of electrical, and later electronic, systems and components in relation to motor vehicles has continued to grow. Today they play a major role in improving safety, energy efficiency and driving comfort.

Nearly half the value of automobiles

Electrical and electronic systems are wholly responsible for the advances made in many areas of the automotive industry. This is particularly true for electronics, which has made a spectacular contribution to the increase in overall value of cars in recent years. In the mid-2000s, electronics accounted for 10-15% of the total production cost of mid-range cars and 20-30% of the cost of luxury models.

Today they represent some 20-30% of the total cost for all categories of car, and this share is expected to reach 40% or so by 2015. The figure is nearer 50% if all electrical systems are included, and is even higher for electric vehicles.

Main factors for wider adoption of electronics in cars

Improving the driveability of vehicles has been a major contributor to the adoption of electronic components in cars. Power windows, light and rain sensors that automatically switch on lamps and wipers, electric power steering, cruise control that allows drivers to maintain a constant speed and advanced parking support systems that manoeuvre cars automatically into a selected parking space contribute, along with many other aids, to better driveability, increased comfort and reduced driver distraction.

Improved safety is another major factor. Sensors play a crucial role – for example by setting off airbags if accidents occur. Safety looks likely to improve further with the introduction of many other devices, such as pre-crash systems that control the brakes and steering automatically so as to mitigate the seriousness of accidents, and collision-avoidance systems that detect hazards or alert careless or drowsy drivers by issuing sound, vibration or light warnings.

Systems that use information transmitted from roadside infrastructure systems and rely on electronics to control engines and brakes are also being developed.

Safety is further enhanced by better lighting coming from LED lamps that are more luminous than conventional lamps.

Environmental considerations are also implicit in the introduction of additional electronic systems to cars. These allow better and leaner engine management, which translates into reduced consumption of fuel and levels of noxious emissions. Fuel consumption is a major sales argument. It can be lowered significantly by improving the performance of electric fuel injection systems, as well as by introducing other devices such as start-stop systems. These use double-layer capacitors that shut down and restart engines automatically when vehicles wait at traffic lights or stop frequently.

IEC Standards apply across all domains

Road vehicle standardization relies on a number of international, regional and national regulations and directives.

Cars must primarily comply with the UNECE (UN Economic Commission for Europe) rules as defined by its World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP 29). They must also comply, when relevant, with national and regional rules and regulations. Many of those apply to equipment that depends on electrical and electronic systems.

In March 2011, IEC and ISO signed an agreement concerning the standardization of electrotechnology for road vehicles and the cooperation between ISO/TC 22 "Road vehicles" and IEC Technical Committees.

All road vehicles, even those powered by internal combustion engines, rely increasingly on such systems. More than 3 dozen IEC TCs and SCs cover the standardization of equipment used in and related to road vehicles as well as of other associated issues.

They include: IEC SC 17B and SC 17D: Low voltage switchgear and controlgear, and their assemblies; TC 20: Electric cables; TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries; SC 22G: Adjustable speed electric drive systems incorporating semiconductor power converters; SC 23E: Circuit breakers and similar equipment for household use; SC 23G: Appliance couplers; SC 23H: Plugs, Socket-outlets and Couplers for industrial and similar applications, and for Electric Vehicles; SC 32B: Low voltage fuses; SC 32C: miniature fuses, TC 34: Lamps and related equipment; SC 37A: Low-voltage surge protecting devices (surge protection of electronic devices will be a very important consideration for plug-in EVs) and SC 47A: Integrated circuits. Naturally IEC TC 69: Electric road vehicles and electric industrial trucks, plays a crucial role in the development of future automotive products and its importance and workload are set to grow in coming years.

Manufacturers producing electrotechnology components and systems for the automotive industry also rely on IECQ, the worldwide approval and certification system for covering the supply of electronic components and associated materials and assemblies, to ensure their products meet the car industry's requirements.

Supporting an industry worth hundreds of billions

As the electrical and electronic content of cars has increased, so has the overall value of the industry, opening up many opportunities for manufacturers. The current size of the global car market gives a good indication of the size and growth potential of the electrotechnology content of cars and of its overall value. Over 66 million motor cars were produced in 2012. This does not include commercial vehicles, a huge market in itself.

Together, the world's top 6 car producers had revenues of nearly 1 000 billion dollars in 2012. As electronic components alone account for a substantial share of the total costs for all categories of car, they constitute a highly significant global market, and one that is set to grow further. This expansion would not be possible without the standardization work done by many IEC TCs and SCs.

Denso alternator_org IEC TC 55 developes International Standards for winding wires used in alternators (Photo: Denso)
porsche_hybrid_1900 The 1900 Lohner-Porsche Mixte hybrid (rebuilt in 2011), the world's first hybrid car
a_class_E_Cell motor Electric drive of the Mercedes A-Class E-CELL (Photo: Daimler AG)