The auto industry's conversion to higher power is taking longer than first expected, but the delay is giving automakers and their suppliers more time to determine exactly how a voltage change will affect them and the materials they use.
The pending switch to a 42-volt electronic system - from the current 14 volts - will mean more electronics, though, and a greater reliance on plastic-encased, fiber-optic cable rather than metal gears and connectors.
``There's been a lot of discussion about what this is going to mean,'' Jim Gracyalny, sales director for Johnson Controls Inc.'s advanced battery technology group in Plymouth, Mich., said in a May 14 telephone interview.
``A lot of the plastic material people are trying to figure this out. It's definitely going to be an enabler for new technology. Think of how much old iron and steel you can begin to remove from the vehicle if you can eliminate the hydraulics.''
The global auto industry has operated since the 1950s with standard 14-volt electronics, which use a 12-volt battery. An increasing demand for mobile gizmos - everything from heated steering wheels to window defrosters and navigation systems - has spurred development of a higher voltage.
In the mid-1990s, carmakers and their suppliers settled on a new standard for the future: 42 volts using a 36-volt battery.
At that time, analysts assumed the first 42-volt cars would be in or nearing production by now. But something happened on the way to higher power: higher costs. Now most analysts expect the change to take another decade to hit full force.
Only one 42-volt car is on the market today, the Toyota Crown, available only in Asia.
The switch to 42 volts requires more than a simple battery shift, said Iftikhar Khan, manager of vehicle electrical systems for Troy, Mich.-based Delphi Corp.'s energy and battery division. Each electronic system must change - each switch, cable and junction box, whether it is for an integral operating system for an engine component, or a power window control.
``There is a lot of cost involved in redesigning these from 14-volt to 42-volt, a lot of retooling,'' Khan said.
And at the same time, battery makers are making ever-more-efficient batteries and generators, meaning cars are squeezing more performance from the standard program.
``The technology is not the limiting factor,'' Gracyalny said. ``It's the cost. What we're seeing is that the car manufacturers are going to milk 12-volt [batteries] for as long as they can.''
Once higher-voltage systems arrive, manufacturers are preparing for a wealth of new gadgets that will change the way electronics - and the plastics that encase them - are used in cars.
Immediate changes could include smaller wiring harnesses and the use of ``mechatronic'' switches that would increase the overall plastics content in automotive electronics through more use of connectors and cables.
Higher-voltage batteries also will be required if automakers ever adopt higher-technology developments such as drive-by-wire, Gracyalny said. Within the ``by-wire'' system, fiber-optic wires and electric impulses replace the hydraulic fluid, rods and gears that connect the brake, accelerator, steering wheel and other control systems to the working components, much like the system the airline industry already uses.
That by-wire system will come just as surely as the higher voltage, experts maintain. It is just a matter of when.
Both Delphi and JCI, along with their competitors, have development cars running on the higher voltage to prove their capabilities. Despite the delay, the day is coming when the entire supply chain will have to make the change, they said.
``The timing will be determined by our customers,'' Khan said. ``We will hit the limit at some point in time as far as what we can do with 14 volts. The only question now is the timing.''