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Interview: Vitesco prepares for jump to SiC, GaN

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By Christoph Hammerschmidt


The Continental spin-off Vitesco, ironically referred to by some as “Continental’s bad bank” as it still is struggling with the legacy of the internal combustion engine, went public a year ago and is now fully committed to electromobility as the future. Thomas Stierle, Vitesco board member responsible for Electrification Technology and Electronic Controls, told eeNews Europe Automotive what this will exactly look like.

As a specialist for powertrains, Vitesco is focusing on electromobility. The product range includes high-voltage axle drives with the associated electronics, battery management systems, inverters and charging controls for high-voltage batteries. In addition, the company produces sensors, access control systems and engine control units for cars and trucks.  Vitesco is conspicuously abstinent on the subject of fuel cell drives. Therefore, we asked Thomas Stierle what the company’s position is on this technology. “In the context of electromobility, Vitesco clearly focuses on battery-powered drives,” says Stierle. “This also fits very well with our legacy, we have been active in this field for over 10 years.” However, he said the company also follows a strategy of keeping its product portfolio independent of the energy source. “That means our products can be used in a PHEV, in a hybrid drive or a pure BEV as well as in a fuel cell vehicle,” Stierle said. For example, he said, the company’s e-axle would also be installed in a fuel cell vehicle.

However, the top manager expects battery power to prevail across the board in the passenger car sector; fuel cell-powered passenger cars will remain a niche product with low production volumes, according to his assessment.

Nevertheless, Vitesco is also active in the commercial vehicle market – here the company supplies special sensors and engine control units (ECUs). In this segment, Vitesco still sees market potential for products that are linked to combustion engines. “Our business in this segment for the next decade will still be very much related to sensors and actuators and less to electromobility,” said Stierle. “Because in the heavy-duty sector you have significantly higher requirements that necessitate additional developments. We are putting our focus in the passenger car sector because we also see stronger growth opportunities there.”

Vitesco will not enter into the development and production of batteries, as this would require too high an upfront investment. Instead, the company will focus entirely on electronics, including high-voltage technology. Here, the clear focus is on striving for greater efficiency, because the efficiency, especially of the inverters for generating the motor AC voltage, translates directly to a larger range of the vehicles.

In this area, Stierle is currently observing the switchover from silicon IGBTs to silicon carbide (SiC) components. “We assume a 7 % higher efficiency; if you put a little intelligence into the control, you can also achieve 9 %,” said Stierle.

In the case of chargers for high-voltage batteries, on the other hand, Stierle sees advantages for gallium nitride (GaN) components. Here, too, it is about more efficiency: The use of GaN components offers the perspective to reduce the efforts for cooling and packaging and to bring more compact and lighter products to the market. Although GaN technology is still in its infancy today, Stierle also expects advantages for GaN on the cost side in the medium term. “I think that later, with increasing volume, this technology will be able to make up for the cost disadvantage that still exists today and will also generate advantages in the system approach,” Stierle said. At Vitesco, he said, there are initial considerations to use GaN components in inverters; Stierle expects them to be used in commercial products in about five years.

In any case, the tier-one automotive supplier attaches very high importance to semiconductor technology. “We have recognised the strategic importance of these technologies for us and have already entered into corresponding partnerships in both the SiC and GaN areas,” said Stierle. For example, Vitesco has been cooperating with Rohm in the field of SiC technology for a long time, and more recently also with Infineon. What’s more, to push the development of GaN components for its DC/DC converters and onboard chargers, Vitesco has acquired a minority stake in the Canadian specialist GaN Systems.

A topic of increasing controversy in the industry is the fragmentation of supply chains with their supranational dependencies. It has caused some problems for the automotive industry in recent years: Container ships stuck in the Suez Canal, production breaks due to the Corona pandemic and, last but not least, geopolitical differences caused interruptions in supplies, especially of vital semiconductors. Against this background, Vitesco’s top manager emphasised the company’s philosophy of establishing local supply chains in its respective local markets as well “At Vitesco, we clearly have the philosophy “In the market – for the market”. For cost reasons alone, but also to be better prepared against disruptions,” said Stierle. At the same time, he underlined the company’s commitment to China. “China is a very large market. Many of our customers are active there, and of course we follow our customers. But there, too, it is true that we develop locally for our local customers in China and establish our supply chains there,” said Stierle.

https://www.vitesco-technologies.com/en-us

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