Auto Engineers Look Beyond Engines

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"Accessory components can be decoupled from the engine and powered by electricity."

In the auto industry's drive to boost fuel efficiency, innovations in engine design command headlines and fanfare.

Electric cars right now are generating an overabundance of buzz, but inside the labs of many auto companies, engineers have quietly started looking beyond the engine and toward other components to reduce what is known in the industry as "parasitic losses" of fuel-efficiency.

These include air-conditioning compressors, power-steering systems, alternators and such. All of them need power to operate and traditionally they draw that from the turning of the engine, usually via a tangle of pulleys and belts.

Together, they add up to a considerable strain on the engine—and represent an opening for new fuel-saving technologies.

Auto engineers are often glad to find tweaks and changes that give them an extra tenth of a mile per gallon, and are also looking to other components that can be decoupled from the engine and powered by electricity, such as fans, water pumps and air conditioning so they can be powered only when needed and lessen the load on the engine.

Electric power steering "is something that has a lot of momentum around the world," said Charlie Cregeur, director of product planning for the steering systems unit of parts supplier TRW Automotive Inc.

Estimates show that about 27% of the cars and light trucks that are now on the market in North America have electric power steering. Its data say that will increase to 73% by 2015.

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