Plug-in vehicles continue to grow in appeal and in power. 2018 promises to be the biggest year yet for the electric car.
As automakers invest in electrified powertrains and charging infrastructure, opportunities continue to expand for connector suppliers. 2018 will bring new vehicles and new drivers to a continually innovating electric car landscape that is made possible by connectors. Global sales of electric cars surged 63% in the third quarter of 2017, and that’s just the beginning.
Pure electric vehicle sales have been gaining momentum. The market reached two million total sales through 2016, according to Paris-based International Energy Agency. In 2017, that number continued to grow, pushed in part by China, which is putting an emphasis on electric vehicles (EVs) as the government struggles to curb pollution. China now accounts for half of global EV use. China is also poised to take on Tesla with its Nio startup EV, which launched in late December 2017, and promises a premium EV experience and speeds of up to 100mph in 4.4 seconds.
Demand for EV cars by other makers is strong as well. BMW met its sales goal of 100,000 EV units sold in 2017, Toyota announced an expansion of its EV line to 10 BEV models, and Volkswagen became Europe’s top seller of electric vehicles in 2017. Tesla, meanwhile, hit production snafus and failed to fulfill orders on time for its entry-level Model 3. That left Chevrolet to pick up the slack: Its Bolt EV became the top-selling electric vehicle in the US in 2017. General Motors announced plans to introduce four new all-electric vehicles by 2020, followed by a new EV platform that will reduce costs by 30%. Ford said it will spend $5 billion to develop new battery electric and hybrid models.
The changeover to electric is increasingly inevitable. France and the UK have set bans for internal combustible engine vehicles to take effect in 2040, and California is proposing the same. Throughout the industry, development teams are racing to help these countries meet their goals. Connector makers are on this bandwagon, coming out with a range of products that link cars to charging stations.
Yazaki and Amphenol joined the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) working group to create the SAE J1772 vehicle charging standard. In 2017, TE Connectivity unveiled the Dibo+, an enhanced SAE J1772 connector that’s ruggedized for 10,000 mating cycles. Yazaki has also partnered with a number of companies that make charging stations.
Many R&D teams are developing connectors that will help remove range anxiety, which has been one of the biggest barriers holding back EV sales. Charging systems are evolving to shorten charging times, making it viable for EV owners to drive longer distances. The multi-hour charging times of the past can be reduced significantly by increasing power levels.
“People can’t spend six or eight hours charging their vehicle if they’re on a long drive,” said Vince Carioti, director of E-Mobility North America at Phoenix Contact. “Customers are asking us for inlets that can do 500 amps at 1,000 volts, which lets you get a pretty good charge in just a few minutes, about the time it takes to fill up with gas. Now, normal Type 1 SAE connectors are usually rated at 125A and 600V.”
High-power connectors will be needed on both sides of the connection. Though they’ll handle a lot of power, those in the car won’t have to be heavily designed for high temperatures because they won’t be active for more than a few minutes at a time.
Heat dissipation, however, will be a key concern for the connectors attached to public charging stations. These stations will be used quite often once there’s a fairly high volume of EVs on roadways. Owners of the charging stations will hope there’s little time between charges for connectors to cool down, so connector makers are developing liquid cooling techniques that will let the chargers work continuously.
Adding cooling isn’t the only enhancement that’s expected. If the market expands as pundits predict, there will be a multitude of automakers vying to make EV charging simpler and more efficient. One aspect of this is to ensure that nothing overheats during the charging process. High temperatures can cause degradation in batteries, shortening their lifetime. Charging connectors will have to closely monitor the temperature, current flow, and other parameters.
“Next-generation inlets will be smarter,” Carioti said. “They won’t just provide connections, they’ll provide communications back to the vehicle. When you’re looking at high power charging, instead of having minutes to measure temperature, you need to check the temperature levels every few seconds.”
He also noted that smarter connectors would be able to work with a range of protocols. That may come into play if some automakers create their own protocol, following a common industry trend to alter standards slightly.
Though many pundits and prognosticators predict that automotive sales have hit a tipping point that will spark a huge shift to EVs, many obstacles must still be overcome. Tesla, the poster child for electrification and the darling of the stock market, continues to lose around $100 million every month despite getting paybacks for selling emissions-free vehicles. The company desperately needs to fill its orders for the Model 3 before customers go elsewhere.
Another challenge for connectors: Finding enough power for EVs. Several observers have noted that power grids in many countries cannot support the charging demands that will come with high numbers of EVs. Upgrading power grids and creating battery storage facilities that let solar and wind systems provide power during darkness and wind-free time periods will be expensive. A Reuters examination said that Britain will need to spend several billion pounds to upgrade its electrical generators and grid to levels needed if the UK bans petroleum-powered vehicles by 2040 as planned. Additional billions in investments will be needed to install enough charging stations to support EVs.
If these investments are made, it will create solid markets for the electronics industry. Connectors will be needed at many points throughout this upgraded electrical grid, beginning with the energy generation source and ending with the driver of these next-generation vehicles.