Electric vehicles are the next step of automotive evolution and global suppliers are gearing up to come up with new innovations that could cement their prime position in the fast-developing EV market.
Electric vehicles have been around for a fair time now. Although they are just as competent as their conventional counterparts in almost every aspect, what keeps most buyers from opting for EVs is limited range and heavy kerb weight. The simple addition of battery packs drastically increases a vehicle’s mass. The batteries themselves tend to run hot in operation, leading to the necessity of fitting sub-systems for cooling. This adds even more weight to the car. Also, automakers have had more than a century to extract efficiency from internal combustion engines, while EVs have just begun to come into their own, presenting complications as they keep advancing technologically.
Global automotive suppliers are looking at the untapped EV parts market and scrambling to develop specific solutions to a wide variety of issues that EVs come with. St. Paul, Minnesota based 3M is currently developing its wonder fluid called Novec for application in EVs. Novec is a non-conducting liquid that the manufacturer has sold in the past to cool supercomputers and which can be adapted to cool electric vehicles’ battery packs. Maintaining low, even battery temperatures allows EVs to travel farther, which is incidentally a critical factor that is against the electric car’s favor right now: lack of substantial range. The application of Novec could boost the range of the EVs, making them a viable alternative to conventional vehicles. “Automakers are trying to figure out how to get the absolute maximum out of batteries,” said Ray Eby, who leads 3M’s automotive electrification program founded in 2017. “That’s right in 3M’s wheelhouse.”
Suppliers are aiming to have automakers adopt their technology early on in the EV race so that they can supply solutions to multiple customers. There is no concrete path to develop EVs and all automakers are moving forward by feel. This opens up vast opportunities for suppliers, allowing them to influence what parts or materials to use. Companies like BorgWarner, TE Connectivity Ltd have embedded teams of engineers working in car manufacturer’s R&D divisions, so that they can pitch existing products and materials, or subtly direct the development in their favor.
Another bone of contention customers have with EVs is the porky kerb weight of these cars. This is where suppliers who develop lightweight materials come in. Norsk Hydro which is a supplier for Tesla is fast coming up with a method to combine two of its businesses to suit EV tech demands: extruded body parts and precision tubing. The two technologies combined could be employed to obtain an efficient hardware setup to cool batteries. Through this endeavor, Norsk Hydro can gently push automakers to adopt aluminum as their principal material. “Automakers are more comfortable with steel, so you’re automatically fighting an incumbent material there,” said Mike Tozier, head of Hydro’s advanced product development in North America. “But automakers are looking aggressively at more options because they have to remain cost competitive at high volumes.”
Suppliers are even looking at car tyres as a potential contributor to increasing the efficiency of EVs. To that end, Trinseo, a global manufacturer of plastics, latex, and synthetic rubber has invested in a plant in Germany to boost its synthetic rubber production capacity by 33% in anticipation of the growth in demand for EV tyres. “Tyres made with synthetic rubber can boost efficiency by 12 percent compared to conventional tires,” said Hayati Yarkadas, Senior Vice President at Trinseo. “The development cycle requested for EVs is significantly shorter and faster than what we have faced with the traditional automotive industry,” he further added.
Automotive suppliers globally are making their move at the right time as automakers are in the initial stages of EV development. In 2017, total investment by EV manufacturers stood at $115 billion with capital expenditure to the tune of $234 billion. The investment is projected to swell to $255 billion by 2023. Suppliers have hit the EV market at the right time then, it seems.