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.
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