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September 18, 2010 'Start-stop' technology headed to U.S. | | The Detroit News

'Start-stop' technology headed to U.S.

Automakers look to system to meet fuel-saving demands

The stage is set for a relatively simple and inexpensive fuel-saving technology to proliferate on vehicles in North America.

So-called "start-stop" systems turn off a car when it is idling and reignite the engine when the driver releases the brake.

The technology is widespread in Europe and is poised to expand in the United States and Canada in the next five years, as automakers look for every tool in the box to meet increasingly stringent fuel-economy and emissions requirements.

Estimates vary, but the consensus is shutting off the engine at a stop can improve fuel economy as much as 15 percent. And its affordability should make it accessible to the car-buying masses.

"Engineers kill for one-tenth of a mile per gallon," said Joe Phillippi of AutoTrends Consulting Inc. in Short Hills, N.J. " In city driving, it would make a huge impact."

The technology already is prevalent in Europe on vehicles with manual transmissions. In North America, less than 10 percent of buyers drive a manual -- which means the start-stop technology must be adapted to work with cars most Americans drive.

Another challenge is consumer acceptance.

"It is a strange sensation because the engine suddenly turns off," said analyst Stephanie Brinley of EMC Strategic Communications in Troy. "It is quick and seamless, but you can tell it happens."

Automakers say the technology would be accepted here more readily if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changes testing procedures because some of the agency's tests don't have many stops and therefore don't recognize its full benefits.

But none of the obstacles appears insurmountable, and many automakers have the system in their near-term product plans.

"I think most vehicles will have that capability going forward," said Jeff Jowett, principal analyst with IHS Automotive in Northville. He forecasts steady growth of the technology.

Half of the new cars in Europe will have start/stop technology in 2012 and North America will reach that figure in 2016, said Frank Frister, product manager with Bosch North America.

Suppliers such as Bosch and ZF Group are adapting the technology for automatic transmissions.

Hydraulic pressure must be maintained to send power to the wheels when the engine restarts. Solutions include an electric auxiliary pump or an accumulator to retain pressure when the engine is off.

The solutions are expected to trigger mass production of start-stop systems in the near term.

The only start-stop system offered in the United States today is on the Porsche Panamera, but that vehicle doesn't have a traditional automatic transmission.

BMW AG made the technology standard on vehicles with manual transmissions in Europe. It will debut on an undisclosed U.S. vehicle with an automatic transmission next year, said Frank Baloga, vice president of engineering for BMW Group North America.

It is still a work in progress, however, and has limitations.

The driver must keep a foot on the brake and not turn the wheels for a set time for the engine to shut off, Baloga said. And the system will only work if the temperature is between 39 and 85 degrees, so the engine is not needed to heat or cool the interior.

What's up next

Ford Motor Co. may be next to the plate, with plans to offer the technology as early as 2012 on U.S. vehicles with manual transmissions -- about 4 percent of Ford sales -- and on automatics, spokesman Richard Truett said.

Chrysler Group LLC offers start-stop in Europe and will introduce it in North America by 2014, according to the automaker's five-year plan.

"To bring it to the U.S. is more challenging to match it with an automatic transmission," said Chrysler powertrain chief Paolo Ferrero.

Chrysler is spending $300 million at its Kokomo, Ind., facility to make an eight-speed transmission licensed from ZF, starting in 2013. The ZF transmission has the pressure accumulator needed for start-stop technology.

The Auburn Hills-based automaker will introduce eight-speeds on the 2011 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger but won't confirm if the cars initially will have start-stop.

General Motors Co. first showed the potential of the technology in 2006 on the Saturn Vue "mild hybrid," a gas-electric vehicle that relies on the gas engine for propulsion. Start-stop was part of a larger package of fuel-saving technologies.

The vehicles went out of production in 2009, but second-generation mild hybrids are due next year, said Larry Nitz, executive director of hybrid and electric powertrain engineering.

GM eventually will offer start-stop capability without the rest of the trappings of the mild hybrid system, Nitz said.

He sees the capability as important enough that it will spread across the industry. "There will be a big uptick in North America for the fuel economy and we will be part of it."

As the clock ticks to meet tougher corporate fuel economy standards in 2016, "everything will be thrown at it," Ford's Truett said. "Start-stop will be part of that."

One advantage is that it is low-cost technology because most of the components already are in the car; they may just need some modification, Frister said. "It is a low-hanging fruit."

Suppliers and analysts estimate the cost as low as $500.

"The cost will be considerably less than the least-expensive hybrid," Truett said.

Consumer acceptance

A larger question is whether customers will accept it, said Jim Hall, analyst with 2953 Analytics in Birmingham.

Justin Ward, advanced powertrain manager, Toyota Motor Sales USA, said the technology offers a good near-term benefit, but a full hybrid makes more sense: Drivers pay more, but they get more efficiency.

"I don't think people will shop looking for start-stop, but if it is good, they will brag to their friends that they have it," said James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book in Irvine, Calif. "There is nothing more efficient than a quiet car at a stop light."
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