Chief Executive Officer
Let’s face it; the auto industry has fallen behind the curve. Older mechanical systems that could have been converted to next-generation mechatronics still populate even the most technologically advanced vehicles. Why? Because older mechanical systems are safe (as in: low job risk), thoroughly engineered, completely market accepted, and perceived to be very cost effective.
For example, we once had a conversation with an Opel executive engineer about air conditioning systems. He said that Opel would always sacrifice access to airflow for coefficient of drag. In other words, improving airflow to air conditioning heat exchangers right behind the bumper in the front of the car would always take a back seat to overall vehicle aerodynamics as a method to improve fuel economy. The problem is that aerodynamics can’t make up for the horsepower drain an air conditioning compressor puts on an engine when the air conditioner is on.
Well, it turns out that OEMs like Opel can have their cake and cool it too. Leave the front end aerodynamics alone and approach the compressor horsepower drain a separate way: electronic compressor displacement control. A simple upgrade to electronic compressor displacement control system will optimize the compressor horsepower drain as much as possible. In fact, electronic displacement control can improve fuel economy by as much as four miles per gallon depending on the engine size.
In addition to the fuel economy improvement, the upgrade actually can save the OEM money in other areas. As a simple example, by integrating sensing into the electronic valve package, the OEM can eliminate the packaging and the wire harness associated with
That’s around a $7.00 savings. On top of the material cost savings, the sensor and wire harness assembly step in the vehicle production process goes away. So what does that mean from a bottom line? It’s HUGE. For the entire US market, the savings would equal $200 million a year for making one small (really small) change.
So why aren’t the US auto makers all over this new technology?
First, until recently, CAFÉ numbers in the US were calculated with the air conditioning off. Second, until the advent of silicon-based control systems, electronic displacement control added weight, cost, size and complexity to the vehicle. Third, aerodynamics, amongst other things, is sexier than compressor displacement control.
And fourth, surprisingly enough, compressor people don’t talk to air conditioning people. Compressors as manufactured products are machining and assembly intensive. Air conditioning modules, on the other hand, are design intensive and relatively easy to manufacture (brazed heat exchangers are bolted into snap-together injection molded plastic cases). The engineering disciplines are not remotely similar, so air conditioning engineers and compressor engineers are in different buildings and never talk.
The same dynamic is going on in automatic transmissions. Automatic transmissions are electronically controlled, but have you ever seen the transmission fluid routing valve body on an automatic transmission? Valve bodies range in size from a small dictionary to an over-stuffed three-inch binder and weigh anywhere from six to fifteen pounds. An integrated silicon valve body looks and weighs the same as a Blackberry. An automatic transmission is just like a manual transmission except that the driver doesn’t have to push in the clutch and work the lever. The trick is knowing when to shift, and how quickly to shift. Most of the smarts in an electronic automatic transmission are employed in figuring out those two things: when to shift, and how quickly to shift. Consequently, transmission engineers grab what’s available to hydraulically push in the clutch, which typically includes a solenoid valve to turn on and off the flow of transmission fluid. Solenoid valves do the job, but they’re bulky, heavy, costly, impossible to integrate with sensors, and not particularly easy to control electronically.
So, come on auto industry! Let’s work together to save hundreds of dollars by converting mechanical systems into electronics and software. Let’s use the next generation of micro electromechanical systems (MEMS) fluid management devices, where integration will save space, weight, and cost while improving not only subsystem performance but fuel economy too!
Let’s look at how we can combine MEMS sensors and valves with custom ASICs to achieve unprecedented control and performance improvement. 76% of cars on the planet have an air conditioning system, and around 90% of all cars have automatic transmissions. Here’s an opportunity in two segments to help the planet and reduce the energy burden: the silicon MEMS based control systems have less moving parts and so last virtually forever. Reducing loads on moving systems like engines and transmissions by better control lengthens the lives of those systems: longer lives equals longer vehicle retention and less material in landfills and salvage yards. Engines working less to provide air conditioning means lower emissions and less gasoline consumption.
Automotive engineering prowess —once the pride of the industrial world — could once again earn global admiration and respect, attracting the best and brightest new graduates. And customers will come flocking back for cars and trucks that are easier on the gas pump.