It looks as if the electric motor is poised to replace the internal combustion engine in the automobile.
- Britain and France have put an end date on the sale of passenger vehicles with gasoline or diesel engines, and China is contemplating the same move.
- Several automakers have said their current generation of internal combustion engines may be the last they develop.
- And last week at the Frankfurt auto show, just about every automaker amped up its electrification plans.
The change from internal combustion engines to electric motors will be one of the biggest the industry has ever faced. More than a century of development and investment in the internal combustion engine will now start to slow as automakers begin designing, developing and, most likely, building electric motors in-house.
Production engineers are probably already thinking about how engine plants will need to be retooled from producing internal combustion engines to spinning out electric motors.
While the improvements in the automobile internal combustion engine are well documented, the state of the electric motor is less well known -- at least among those of us who focus on the auto industry. At Automotive News, we've rarely written about the internal workings of the electric motor and the engineering challenges it poses as it moves into high volume production and use. That seems likely to change.
For now, I've checked in with Larry Nitz, executive director of General Motors' global propulsion systems. Nitz most recently led the engineering team that designed the electric motors for the Chevrolet Volt and Bolt.
These motors are not off-the-shelf components bought from suppliers, but were designed in-house at GM with the goal of optimizing them for their specific duty cycles. GM builds some motors in-house and buys others that have been designed by GM engineers.
Compared with a typical four-cylinder internal combustion engine, which has hundreds of moving parts, the electric motor is very simple. Motors have a rotor, stator, armature, commutator, windings and bearings. While they may be far less complex than gasoline or diesel engines, electric motors pose their own challenges. Some, such as cost, weight and smoothness, are the same as those facing internal combustion engines.
And, Nitz says, even though electric motors are about twice as efficient as gasoline engines, there is room for improvement. "Incremental improvements are possible in the reduction of rare earths in permanent magnet motors," he said. "Incremental improvements are also possible in induction motors."