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Traction motor industry faces ‘a very nasty surprise’

17 June, 2013

A new market study has condemned manufacturers of electric traction motors as being “an industry structured for the past that is going to have a very nasty surprise when the future comes”.

The report – from the market analyst IDTechEx Research – finds that the number of electric motors needed to power electric vehicles of all types will more than triple from 44.6 million in 2013 to 147.7m by 2023. But it warns that it is “wakeup time” for the traction motor industry.

The survey of 123 traction motor manufacturers finds that “far too few” are making asynchronous or switched-reluctance synchronous motors and large, high-power motors, or even powerful lightweight motors. “There are far too many making traction motors with brushes,” the report concludes.

“In short, this is an industry structured for the past that is going to have a very nasty surprise when the future comes,” the report says. “Most of it is not even talking to the vehicle manufacturers that will spend most to buy traction motors in the years to come. Many think easy money comes from pursuing the obvious – notably, selling to the fearsomely competitive electric car market where 90% of your customers are headed for insolvency. In China alone, there are over 100 manufacturers of electric cars and none are successful.”

According to IDTechEx, the type and size of motors needed for traction duties is going to change dramatically. At present, the market is dominated by small, low-power applications such as electric bicycles, mobility scooters and golf carts which account for 92% of all traction motors being sold today. In 2011, 34 million electric bikes were sold worldwide. By 2023, the quantities of motors sold for two-wheeled and similar vehicles will still vastly out-number sales of larger machines, accounting for more than 80% of traction motors being sold.

These small motors typically deliver around 250W and 0.2–0.5Nm of torque. At the other end of the scale, electric motors used to propel buses or forklifts can be rated at up to 400kW and deliver up to 6kNm of torque.

Despite their vast numbers, the small motors represent only about half of the value of the traction motor market. By 2023, this proportion will drop to about 25% as larger electric vehicles needing more powerful motors become more common, according to IDTechEx. For example, it expects revenue from motors for electric cars to increase nearly six-fold over the coming decade, largely as a result of more hybrid vehicles being sold.

At present, the traction motor market is dominated by permanent magnet synchronous motors – notably, brushless DC machines with trapezoidal waveforms and PM AC designs with sinusoidal waveforms.

But the study predicts that asynchronous motors will come to dominate the market for ratings of 5kW and above. They will represent more than 70% of the market by value and will include technologies such as switched reluctance synchronous motors that avoid the need for costly magnets.

Cars are already the biggest market for traction motors by value
Source: IDTechEx

But IDTechEx adds that in larger EVs, performance is more important than cost, so the high cost of rare-earth magnets is less important. It points out that larger motors also usually need a lot of costly copper as well as control systems. Switched reluctance motors, in particular, can need twice as many power semiconductor devices as standard machines so are not necessarily less expensive.

It predicts that the winners in future traction markets will be chosen on performance rather than price, with fault-tolerance being a desirable characteristic. It points to the examples of Chorus Motors’ asynchronous machines and Protean Electric’s asynchronous in-wheel motors. Another selling factor may be the ability to work efficiently at higher voltages (300–700V) because this will reduce the amount of copper needed and allow the use of thinner, more manageable wiring.

IDTechEx does not expect multi-motor propulsion systems – such as those with a motor in each wheel ­– to be as important as some observers predict. By 2022, it expects that only 2.5% of all electrically-powered vehicles (including those on the water and in the air) will use multiple traction motors, adding that only 5.6% of traction motors will be sold for multi-motor vehicles.

But, it adds, that the figures could rise to 30% of all electric cars and 40% of military electric vehicles and this market will be big enough to sustain two or three suppliers.

The €3,375 report, Electric Motors for Electric Vehicles 2013-2023: Forecasts, Technologies, Players, has been written by IDTechEx chairman, Dr Peter Harrop who was was previously chief executive of Mars Electronics and director of technology of Plessey Capacitors Scotland.

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