Pressured parts makers step up the innovation
TOKYO — Steer-by-wire systems. Grille shutters. More efficient regenerative braking. Direct-shift automatic transmissions.
Those are just some of the advanced technologies Toyota Motor Corp.’s key suppliers are readying for the world’s biggest automaker.
The systems will start arriving as early as next year, linked to Toyota’s shift to a new, commonized vehicle platform called Toyota New Global Architecture.
The sampling of technology on tap, outlined through interviews with several Toyota Group suppliers, underscores how the carmaker’s top parts makers are innovating amid new competitive pressures.
As Toyota rolls out the TNGA vehicles, starting with the arrival of the redesigned Prius hybrid this year, parts increasingly will be developed to international specifications.
Opening the door
That will open the door to more sourcing from rival global megasuppliers, such as Germany’s Robert Bosch GmbH.
Today, about 60 percent of the parts in an average Toyota vehicle are sourced from Toyota Group companies, joined by interlocking shareholdings. Those keiretsu relationships have been a source of frustration for major non-Japanese suppliers trying to break into Toyota’s supplier ranks. But that percentage could fall rapidly as Toyota looks afield for competitive suppliers.
“I think we will lose out to our competitors if we do not respond to Toyota’s aspirations for TNGA,” said Yasumori Ihara, a former global purchasing head at Toyota who recently took over as president of Aisin Seiki Co., Toyota’s No. 2 supplier.
Among Aisin Seiki’s planned product pitches: a new automatic transmission that employs locking gears for a more direct, efficient transfer of power through the drivetrain, similar to a manual. It will be deployed in one of the automaker’s vehicles in 2016.
Ihara declined to give details of the new transmission. But the technology could be similar to the direct-shift gearboxes deployed by Volkswagen AG or the eight-speed direct-shift transmission in the Lexus RC F, which uses clutch lockup.
Aisin also is developing grille shutters that close like a venetian blind at high speeds to improve aerodynamics.
Such technology currently is found on luxury cars, select pickups and vehicles that target segment-leading fuel economy. Aisin aims to target its grille shutters at compact cars.
Meanwhile, Toyota-affiliated brake maker Advics Co. is gearing up for a new era of hybrids and autonomous driving systems.
Advics makes the regenerative brakes for every Toyota gasoline-electric hybrid. Those brakes convert the kinetic energy of braking into electricity that recharges the onboard battery.
The goal, said Advics President Satoshi Ogiso, is to improve the efficiency of that regeneration and cut the cost.
A critical challenge is expanding the effective range of regeneration. Gentle braking at slow speeds, for example, can recoup as much as 70 percent of the kinetic energy. But hard braking at high speeds can recoup as little as 20 percent.
Watch for improvements in Toyota’s next-generation hybrid powertrain system beginning its rollout with the renewed Prius.
Advics also will pour r&d into controllers and hardware for pre-crash auto-stop systems. Toward that end, Advics opened a tech center outside Nagoya for 500 engineers in August.
“Such driver-assist systems are expanding step by step. The requirements are becoming stricter,” Ogiso said. “We need to improve the computer system speed and brake reaction speed.”
Heat, cold storage
At Toyota’s biggest supplier, Denso Corp., engineers are developing new heat and cold storage systems to improve fuel economy.
The heat storage system is an onboard heat sink that saves wasted engine heat and then discharges it quickly to heat the engine’s lubricating oil.
Warmer oil helps reduce friction loss when the engine starts from a cold stop, improving efficiency.
At the other end of the spectrum, Denso is developing cold storage systems that work in tandem with stop-start systems.
Stop-start systems shut down the engine to save gasoline when the car comes to a halt. But the downside is that the air conditioner’s compressor shuts down at the same time.
Denso’s fix is a fan that blows air over a cold sink in the air conditioner’s evaporator and into the cabin. That keeps the cabin cool without the need for the engine to keep running.
Both technologies are key elements of Denso’s fuel-saving product pipeline through 2025, r&d chief Yasushi Yamanaka said.
JTEKT Corp., the world’s largest supplier of steering systems, also has big plans for Toyota, its top customer and shareholder.
It will develop steer-by-wire technology to work with autonomous driving systems, President Tetsuo Agata said.
Steer-by-wire, still a nascent technology but one that already has been used in such vehicles as the Infiniti Q50 sedan, breaks the mechanical link between the driver and the wheels.
Instead, it converts steering wheel movements into electronic signals that control electric motors to move the wheels.
“We are working with steer-by-wire because it is necessary and almost mandatory to achieve autonomous driving systems,” Agata said, though he declined to give a timeline.
“The speed of adopting autonomous driving systems is accelerating. If we can eliminate the mechanical linkage, we can have more freedom in automotive design. In the future, steer-by-wire is essential.”
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