What Happens When the Spark Goes Out? Auto Suppliers Look beyond Internal Combustion ""

By | January 3, 2018

spark plugs

If electric mobility replaces internal combustion, what will happen to the makers of spark plugs? That’s a major question for NGK Spark Plug, which has a plan for remaining relevant into the electric-vehicle era: solid-state vehicle batteries. The move by the Japanese company, the world’s largest spark-plug maker, is emblematic of a wave of change that is likely to sweep across automotive supplier companies in the year ahead.

The reason is that, in many cases, their business is due to change dramatically over the next decade or so. In the past year, we’ve seen a critical mass of automaker announcements that indicate a stepped-up pace for vehicle electrification and, perhaps, a shorter timeline for when new vehicles solely powered by batteries will outnumber those with internal-combustion (IC) engines.

Although a number of automakers have announced their commitment to offering electrified models, none of them have given a specific timeline for retiring engines, which will continue in hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains. Toyota was one of the few to underscore how many IC-free vehicles it’s targeting: It intends to reach a million annual sales of battery-electric and fuel-cell vehicles by 2030. GM has an even more ambitious goal: a million in 2026.

The Spark Is Still Very Much Needed

Predictions vary widely on how quickly internal-combustion engines will go away completely. Most forecasts anticipate that the majority of new vehicles will have an internal-combustion engine on board for 20 years or more. Bloomberg New Energy Finance anticipates that battery-electric vehicles will start to outnumber vehicles with internal-combustion engines sometime just before 2040.

It appears that NGK is looking to take advantage of that change and accelerate R&D activities in a few areas, including the battery business. Its all-solid-state battery technology would likely harness its experience with ceramics and use a lithium-ion conductive solid electrolyte, and the company points to its safety (it’s nonflammable), its high energy density, and its usability at high temperatures. For that business line, NGK is targeting drones, electric motorcycles, and smart-grid storage systems as potential applications.

Toyota solid-state battery


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A Toyota solid-state battery.

And solid-state batteries aren’t the extent of it. The supplier is also looking to other projects that build on the company’s expertise, such as artificial bones, air-quality sensors, hydrogen leak detectors, and solid-oxide fuel-cell technology.

The news from NGK, originally reported by Reuters, might seem a little out of left field, but it’s representative of what’s happening across the industry as suppliers look ahead and try to find their place in an automotive landscape that will have some very different priorities—not just toward more electrification, but toward autonomous driving as well.

Delphi is one major supplier that recently took that leap, splitting off into Delphi Automotive and Aptiv, with the latter the more electronics-focused entity. ZF and Aisin, among other major companies known for building heavy components that go with gasoline and diesel engines, are also in the process of repurposing themselves in the technology realm.

The spark plug is by no means obsolete. All of those upcoming hybrids will have them, of course, and it even lives on in Mazda’s new compression-ignition gas engine. But if the internal-combustion engine is facing a long decline, companies such as NSK that have depended on it for survival feel a greater sense of urgency. As automakers and regulators continue to announce new targets, you can be sure that the automotive supply chain will continue to transform. It has to.


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