Today’s Cars Are More Electric Than You Think

Evolving features are helping vehicles make the transition to electrified transportation

7 April 2014
Photo: GM

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Even if you haven’t bought a shiny new all-electric car like the Tesla Model S or the electric-hybrid Chevrolet Volt, many of today’s gasoline models offer advanced features thanks to electrification. These include electric power steering, adaptive cruise control, and road condition monitoring, and are just the latest of a long line of developments in the automobile industry. [Check out our infographic for a look at some of the electronics found in modern cars].

Electrification involves replacing car parts that currently don’t run on electric power—such as hydraulic steering and internal combustion engines—with ones that do.

“A goal throughout the auto industry is to make vehicles more electric, and eventually all-electric,” says IEEE Fellow Ali Emadi. He is head of the electric, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle research group at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ont., Canada, and director of Electric Mobility Canada, a national not-for-profit association for those involved with electric-powered transportation. He also chairs the steering committee of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Conference and Expo and is editor in chief of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Journal that will launch early next year. 

Electric car parts are not new, of course. The electric starter dates back to 1911, and electric power steering was introduced in the late 1980s. But in recent years, automakers have been upgrading their car models with electronics faster than ever before. This is due to recent power electronics and electric motor developments, reliable software, access to high-speed Internet on the roads, and advanced vehicular computer systems and cameras, as well as smarter sensors that can sense a variety of factors, such as distance from other cars, objects on the road, and weather conditions.

Emadi explains that most cars on the road today fall somewhere on the electrification spectrum. He reckons, for example, that in North America, the average car is about 5 to 10 percent electrified, with features such as electric power windows and steering, electric pumps and actuators, electronic control units, and infotainment systems. Hybrid vehicles, with both electric motors and a gas engine for propulsion, he puts at between 20 and 50 percent electrified, and plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles are on the higher end of the electrification spectrum. So far, no car on the market today is considered 100 percent electric.

One factor slowing the production of more electrified vehicles is cost, Emadi explains. Electrified car parts are more expensive than the alternatives. But this is changing technological advancements along with higher volumes lower the cost of electric components, he says. Moreover, electric car parts tend to last longer and require fewer repairs, which in the long run makes financial sense.

“More electrification makes cars more efficient,” Emadi says, “and ultimately provides better safety features, more communication between car and driver about conditions on the road and inside the vehicle, and improved gas mileage, which all add up to a better driving experience.”

SAFETY FIRST

The array of sensors available today can help drivers monitor almost anything about their cars and environments, not the least of which are tire pressure and road conditions. Some cars automatically shift gears to accommodate wet or icy conditions. This is done by analyzing sensor information that is monitoring, say, a change in rotation of the tire axles, which denotes slippery conditions. This information is then processed and interpreted and acted upon by a computer.

In the past few years, a collision avoidance system, which automatically brakes when it suspects the car might hit something, has been integrated into several car models, including the Audi A8, Honda Accord, and Ford Edge. Some avoidance systems are equipped with a laser sensor placed near the windshield; a radar system that detects the range, direction, and speed of an object in front of the vehicle; or a video camera that can detect movement and the shapes of a person’s arms and legs. If these devices detect that the vehicle is too close to the car ahead or to a pedestrian, they will relay a message to the brake system’s control unit to stop the car.

“The software and electronic systems found in these vehicles work faster than drivers,” Emadi says. “Humans simply cannot react that quickly. The most subtle of signals can save lives.” 

The same technologies that help avoid collisions can also help drivers park a car in a tight spot, or send an alert when backing up too closely to someone or something. These advances have also led to adaptive cruise control, in which sensors and cameras in the vehicle allow a car to slow down, brake, and stay in its lane without much help from the driver. This feature is already present in many 2013 and 2014 car models, including the Chevrolet Impala, Volvo S60, and Acura RLX. It brings cars a step closer to being autonomous, or self-driving, Emadi says.

SMARTER CARS

With advances in electrification, automakers can design a car to be more like a mobile device, meaning software in the vehicles can be upgraded without having to replace the hardware, Emadi says. Automakers now handle issues that traditionally required a recall to replace hardware by remotely upgrading the car’s software. To reduce fire risks in its vehicles, for example, Tesla Motors made a software upgrade to the onboard charging system in its Model S to detect unexpected fluctuations in current, which will then automatically reduce it by 25 percent. Remote “recalls” are a new practice it plans to continue, similar to how smartphones can be updated without having to physically go to a store, as new safety features are introduced.

And at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, in January in Las Vegas, many car companies announced they had opened their in-car systems to outside developers to create apps that add functions. BMW, for example, demonstrated how a driver could use Samsung’s Galaxy Gear Smartwatch to adjust the interior temperature remotely in its new i3 all-electric car and monitor whether the windows and doors are closed or whether the car battery needs to be charged. General Motors also announced that it will include a health app for its latest models that can be used by drivers to detect foreseeable problems with the car. The company is also building in 4G high-speed broadband, which can be used to download apps to the vehicle’s infotainment system faster, and stream videos or listen to satellite radio with less interruption.  

FUEL-LESS FUTURE

And as the price of the battery used in all-electric vehicles continues to decrease and lasts longer, more automakers will likely offer battery-powered automobiles. “The price of charging a battery is low compared to what many consumers pay at the gasoline pump,” Emadi says. “It’s a significant savings over the life of a vehicle.

“Giving people a choice on how to power their cars and a better way to drive is empowering,” he says.

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