PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- As the auto industry races to give cars more miles to the gallon without the added cost of a full-scale hybrid or electric car, a new style of battery designed by Johnson Controls Inc. in Milwaukee is entering the fray: the micro hybrid.
Over the past year, engineers have refined a 48-volt lithium-ion battery that the company says will boost fuel economy and reduce emissions tied to climate change while costing far less than the premium price commanded by today's hybrids.
Numerous automakers are interested in the technology, which will save up to 15% in fuel yet not add a lot to the price of a gas-powered car, company executives said last week at an industry trends briefing.
When the Obama administration announced that cars in 2025 must get, on average, more than 54 miles per gallon, critics, including the National Auto Dealers Association, said the mandate would add at least $5,000 to the price of a new car.
Johnson Controls' recent innovations -- the new batteries, as well as lighter-weight materials -- should improve fuel efficiency at a fraction of that estimate, the company says.
A key product in this effort is the micro hybrid battery that works in a conventional gas-powered car. The lithium-ion batteries don't power the engine but run power-sucking accessories such as air conditioning.
The batteries would add hundreds of dollars to the cost of a conventional car -- a premium that's nowhere near as high as the additional price that full-scale hybrid vehicles command, said Brian Kesseler, president of the power solutions business.
The next generation
The leading supplier of starter batteries in cars around the world today, Johnson Controls moved quickly in recent years to unveil new battery technologies. The company's "stop-start" batteries, now available on Ford Fusions and Chevrolet Impalas, can boost fuel economy up to 8% by cutting the car's engine while the car is idling at a traffic light.
Think of the micro hybrids as the next generation, or enhanced, stop-start batteries. The micro hybrids can boost fuel economy by another 7% to 8%, or about 15% compared with a conventional car.
The emphasis on batteries comes under Johnson Controls' new chief executive officer, Alex Molinaroli, who oversees a large and complex company that's split among an automotive supply business, the battery division and another segment that helps improve building efficiency.
Molinaroli sees a key growth opportunity in the battery division, which he previously led, as the auto industry focuses on improving fuel economy by about 80% in the next decade.
There's no single strategy available to help automakers achieve such large increases in fuel economy.
"The manufacturers are more open to ideas than they ever were in the past," said Bruce Belzowski, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
"But they're not really interested in making major changes in their internal combustion engines unless they absolutely have to, because they still want to be able to get as much money out of those systems before they have to change them," he added. "This could fit into that."
Other fuel-saving features will be needed -- such as continuously variable transmissions and use of lighter materials to save on fuel.
Johnson Controls' automotive business sees opportunities in these areas as well. This year it introduced a new type of door panel that is 40% lighter than today's panels. The stiff new material combines renewable plant fibers with thermoplastic injection molding. The Johnson Controls seating business has also introduced thinner, lighter-weight seats and frames.
Car-makers are telling Johnson Controls that they want to make vehicles lighter, said Han Hendriks, Johnson Controls vice president of advanced product development in the automotive interiors business.
Smaller is cheaper
Johnson Controls' $6 billion battery business, known as power solutions, is now the industry leader in start-stop batteries.
The first version of the new micro hybrid battery swallowed a good chunk of the trunk in the first test car.
"If you opened up the trunk and looked inside, it was a pretty big battery pack," Kesseler said.
Engineers have refined the battery and the latest models are about the size of a DieHard or EverStart conventional lead-acid battery produced by Johnson Controls.
Making its new advanced battery fit under the hood is a key in bringing down the cost of a fuel-saving technology, Kesseler says.
The amount of power that such batteries crank out is another important consideration.
Batteries for hybrid cars, which must have enough juice to power the car itself, require hundreds of volts. But that creates an electrocution risk and the need for additional and costly safety features. Holding the power to 48 volts reduces the need for such safety items, said Craig Rigby, Johnson Controls vice president of product management and strategy
Other features in the micro hybrid batteries which will go into initial production later this year in Holland, Mich.:
-- The battery is aiming for mass production, using standard designs and sizes. Too often, automakers are designing their own hybrid systems, which makes each one distinctive but also costly from a supplier and consumer's point of view.
-- There is no need for an electric vehicle charging station with start-stops and micro hybrids.
-- The battery has a four-year life expectancy rather than the 10-year life that is the standard for batteries for full-scale hybrid electric vehicles.
In a recent forecast, Navigant Research analysts projected that hybrids and plug-in hybrids would account for about 7% of sales in 2020.
By contrast, Johnson Controls is forecasting that some combination of the more affordable technologies -- start-stop and micro hybrid -- will be standard in two-thirds of cars and trucks sold worldwide by 2020.
Much of those are expected to be start-stop vehicles, a significant business opportunity for Johnson Controls because the absorbent-glass mat batteries that enable the start-stop function cost twice as much -- and generate three times the profit -- as a lead-acid starter battery.
As a result, the battery business is a key source of future growth in Johnson Controls' business strategy, said investment analyst David Leiker of Robert W. Baird & Co. in a recent research note. The start-stop "volume is expected to rise from 4 million in 2013 to 10 million over the next two years with the potential for all vehicles to eventually adopt this technology," he wrote.
Getting the premium paid by consumers to hundreds of dollars rather than thousands makes a more palatable -- if incremental -- move to trim emissions. Cars and light trucks account for nearly 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Over the life of the vehicles produced in 2017 to 2025 to meet the more aggressive carbon and fuel economy standards, the Obama administration estimated the nation would save 4 billion barrels of oil and 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
The challenge for suppliers is to provide fuel savings without making things difficult or cumbersome for the car designers and engineers, Belzowski said. The 48-volt micro hybrid system requires two batteries, a small 12-volt starter battery as well as the compact lithium-ion micro hybrid unit.
"It doesn't look too big, but it's still a packaging issue to try to get both of those things into the vehicle," Belzowski said.
(c)2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Original headline: Johnson Controls eyes cheaper fuel economy with micro hybrid battery
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