Fuel efficiency remains on the forefront of technology innovation in the automotive industry. Every engineer in the industry is trying to push vehicles farther on less fuel -- whether through weight reduction, alternative propulsion or other methods.
Cleveland-based Eaton Corp., which operates an innovation center in suburban Detroit and proving grounds in Marshall, Mich., is taking its high-octane sports car superchargers to the mass-produced car market.
Eaton expects to double supercharger sales by 2016. The maker of engine valves, gears, powertrain controls and superchargers reported net income of $1.4 billion last year on revenue of $16 billion.
Grant Terry, manager of business development for Eaton's superchargers unit, said automakers are making smaller engines to improve fuel efficiency, but customers still want horsepower.
"We've always developed products to meet high horsepower specs," Terry said. "Now we're improving the performance of those superchargers at low speeds, in combination with the aggressive engine downsizing, to meet better fuel economy performance."
In the U.S., Eaton currently supplies its superchargers to Audi's high-end offerings, including the A6, A7, S4, S5, Q5 and Q7 models, as well as Porsche's Cayenne Hybrid and Panamera Hybrid. But it plans to enter the more economical car market, as it's done with the Nissan Micra in Europe and Nissan Note in Japan.
The fuel economy-focused North American market is dominated by turbochargers from companies like Honeywell and BorgWarner. Honeywell said earlier this year it expects turbocharged vehicles in the North America to grow to 3.2 million vehicles, up from 2.2 million in 2011.
Superchargers work the same way as turbochargers by increasing power to the engine through an air-fuel mixture. But turbochargers are driven by exhaust and superchargers are driven by a belt connected to the engine.
Superchargers improve fuel economy by 10 percent to 15 percent, Terry said. Eaton's superchargers also perform better from a cold start and release fewer emissions, he said.
But Terry said he believes as fuel economy regulations continue to spur the use of turbos, superchargers and turbochargers will be paired to offer the best fuel efficiency possible.
"What you're going to see in order to meet the aggressive standards (54.5 mpg by 2025), is compounding of superchargers and turbochargers," he said. "We can use a supercharger for response at low speeds and the turbo for operating at efficient zones at higher speeds, instead of compromising a turbo for response."
Eaton will launch its first four-cylinder supercharged product on a to-be-named vehicle at the Detroit auto show in January. The 2014 model will go on sale in late 2013.