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Modern power electronics devices are widely used in automotive applications
Modern power electronics devices are widely used in automotive applications
( Source: Thinkstock)

Power Electronics? What are automotive power electronics?

| Author / Editor: Luke James / Erika Granath

Although the conventional motor vehicle is well over a century old and was once exclusively powered by heavy mechanical systems, it has evolved with the advent of power electronics (PE). Today, power electronics are incorporated at various levels within all automobiles.

In electrical engineering, power electronics is the study of switching electronic circuits for the control of electrical energy. It is the technology behind devices such as switching power supplies, power converters, and motor drives.

Modern power electronics devices are widely used in automotive applications, as well as non-automotive applications, and their use plays a major role in controlling automotive electronics such as electric power steering, braking systems, seat controls, advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), and more.

As an industry, automotive power electronics is expected to grow exponentially between now and 2027.

What drives the automotive power electronics market?

Many key features in the modern automobile – the chassis, body electronics, safety systems,telematics,infotainment – require power electronic components to function.

With electronic systems continuing to contribute more than 90 percent of innovations in new automotive applications and features, the market for automotive power electronics is being driven by advances in automobile electronics technology. Additionally, concerns surrounding the climate and emissions from gas-powered engines has led to more and more people turning to hybrid and electric vehicles. Consequently, this contributes to further growth of the automotive power electronics market.

Examples of automotive power electronics

Power electronics and systems used in a vehicle vary between models when parameters such as cost, reliability, integration, flexibility, and suitability have been accounted for. Examples of major power electronics components that may be found in a vehicle include:

Inverter

An inverter converts direct current (DC) from a lithium-ion battery source into an alternating current (AC) that is used to operate an electric vehicle’s traction electric motor. There are several examples of inverters, a more modern one being that made by Ascatron – a silicon carbide (SiC)-powered semiconductor that reduces energy losses by up to 90 percent when compared to traditional Si-based inverters.

Voltage converter

A voltage converter is used to convert DC/AC from one voltage level to another, temporarily storing the energy at one level and releasing it at a different voltage.

Controller unit

A controller unit combines an inverter and converter that can be used to recharge an electric vehicle’s battery pack during regenerative braking, a process that develops kinetic energy while braking. The flow of energy to and from the battery is controlled via a control unit that is used together with converter-inverter combinations.

On-board charger

Vehicles with automotive electronics include batteries that can only hold a DC charge. However, power supply is AC and therefore must be converted so that it can be stored for use when the vehicle’s electronics need it.

Electric motors

Replacing the internal combustion engine in an electric vehicle is the electric motor. These motors are used to convert electrical energy into mechanical energy for vehicle propulsion.

A market poised for significant growth

There are hundreds of power electronics, many of which are start-ups, contributing to the development of thousands of different automotive power electronics solutions.

With major players like Renesas Electronics Corporation, Rockwell Automation, Kongsberg Automotive, Taiwan Semiconductors Manufacturing Company, Toshiba, Vishay Intertechnology, and Freescale Semiconductor running operations worldwide, from North America to China and Japan to India, the market will continue to grow alongside the rapid development of the next generation of electric vehicles.

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