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Electric vehicles may be boon, or bust, for suppliers

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The spread of electric vehicles poses substantial risk to auto suppliers but also offers great rewards, said Ted Robertson, chief technical officer of Magna International Inc.

The electrification of vehicles will require many new parts. And many current parts will go the way of carburetors, said the executive at North Amer- ica's largest automotive supplier.

When Magna Chairman Frank Stro-nach told Robertson to design an electric car, Robertson was surprised by the complexity he faced. He identified 13 new systems for electric vehicles that aren't used on gasoline-powered cars.

They include special gearboxes to handle higher electric vehicle rpms; electric power steering; and electric water pumps that can circulate coolant for the traction motor, inverters, battery and heater.

Robertson outlined a number of systems that could disappear with pure electric cars. They include gas tanks and gas lines, as well as mechanical water pumps. “We will have to go with electric water pumps and electric cooling systems,” he said.

Finding qualified suppliers for those and other electric-car parts isn't easy. Just ask General Motors Co. GM has scrambled to find suppliers for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, which goes on sale in November 2010.

John Ferris, Voltec program planning manager for GM, said: “We are lacking in key suppliers across the board: in electrification of the vehicle, in power electronics, braking, drive units, and heating and cooling. We are finding that some suppliers have never supplied the auto industry.”

Most auto parts suppliers build components and mechanical systems for conventional cars, where driveshafts, belts and chains are common. But they face high costs to switch to electric or electronic components.

Meanwhile, newcomers to the auto industry, some of whom have made parts for consumer electronics, sometimes are unfamiliar with the industry's requirements for large volumes, zero defects, crash tests and long-term warranties.

“In some cases there are just a handful” of suppliers, Ferris said, that “can meet the capabilities and requirements for the automotive product in quality, performance, technology and financial capabilities to meet the volumes” of the industry.

Magna is developing jointly with Ford Motor Co. an electric Focus-sized car that the auto maker plans to sell in 2011. Magna has responsibility for much of the vehicle's powertrain, including traction motor, transmission and vehicle control units.

At the Geneva motor show in March, the supplier's Magna Steyr unit unveiled its Mila EV electric car concept.

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