Influence of electric vehicles already permeates the industry

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Electric vehicles have already begun to transform the auto industry.

Some folks say the transformation will begin this autumn with the arrival of the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. These are mass-market EVs that go far beyond those already on the market, which are mainly either glorified golf carts or high-tech Ferrari alternatives.

But consider the ways that the changes already have begun:

• Carl Hahn, Volkswagen AG's chairman emeritus, says, "The greatest contribution of the electric car today has been the acceleration of the development of the internal combustion engine."

That's an exaggeration. Tougher regulations on fuel economy and emissions in countries from the United States to Europe to China are prompting automakers to squeeze greater efficiencies out of their gasoline and diesel engines.

But it also is true that the research on electric vehicles overlaps with that into electrified hybrids, sharply improving the performance of traditional engines.

• Anything that drains power in a car, particularly so-called parasitic losses that don’t help to move the vehicle, will compete with the motor for an EV’s battery power. So automakers and parts suppliers are working overtime to raise the efficiency of electrically powered parts such as air conditioner compressors. The result will be far more efficient components, even beyond the powertrain, for all vehicles.

• The prospect of EVs is sparking research into a broad range of seemingly unrelated technologies. Take sound insulation. EVs lack the roar of a motor to mask road and wind noise. Consumers could be put off by levels of those noises that seem much louder than what they're used to. So noise-insulation suppliers are stepping up their efforts in innovation.

• EVs -- even if they aren't on the road yet -- already are lifting the images of the companies that plan to make them.

That's certainly true for GM, which protected the Volt's development budget even when the automaker was slashing other new-product spending while in bankruptcy. It saw the Volt as critical to upgrading its technological image among consumers.

GM isn't alone. BYD Auto of China has shown or talked about a coming EV at Chinese auto shows for years. The car still isn't on the market. But, notes a Korean auto-industry executive I spoke with in Seoul recently, BYD's sales in China have outpaced the overall market most of the last year or two.

He surmised that BYD's strong sales were due in part to Chinese consumers' believing that if BYD could make an EV, the company must be technically more advanced than consumers previously believed.

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com.

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