UK-based McLaren Applied is a specialist in vehicle electrification, particularly inverters. It recently struck a deal with STMicroelectronics for the supply of silicon carbide power modules for its 800V inverter. Inverter technology is rapidly adopting silicon carbide semiconductors, and McLaren has turned to the Geneva-based company in the absence of a local supply chain. To learn more about the inverters market and the migration from distributed ECU E/E architecture to a centralized zonal one, we spoke to Stephen Lambert, head of electrification at McLaren Applied.
Could you tell us a little about McLaren Applied, its formation, customers and USP?
Over three decades in F1 and other motorsport have given McLaren Applied expertise in electrification, connectivity, control and analytics. This expertise is applied to the motorsport, automotive, transport and mining sectors, delivering technologies with real-world benefits at scale. Our people’s expertise coupled with our technology and agility is pioneering a more sustainable, intelligent and connected future.
We are now independent of the wider McLaren Group, having been acquired by Greybull Capital in 2021. This has given us the freedom to explore new ideas and develop new revenue streams. Across the business, the clients we can mention include Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar, Czinger, Elaphe and Network Rail.
Are you also exploring other technical solutions apart from the SiC above mentioned? If not, why?
We have experience in the use of silicon carbide over the last 10 years, in both automotive and motorsport. We see the benefit that silicon carbide can have particularly for automotive 800V inverters — reducing losses, increasing efficiency and enabling optimization of the whole drivetrain. Silicon carbide is therefore our technology of choice for inverters moving forward. Other technical solutions, such as gallium nitride have a role to play, but it’s more likely going to be in lower voltage and lower power applications, such as DC-DC converters and onboard chargers.
What stage are we at in terms of the auto industry’s momentum (wave) for electrification?
We are now facing the third and fourth waves of automotive electrification, which will take us into an era of mobility in which EVs dominate. This is where carmakers will prioritize developing super-efficient EVs which align with the driver experience they want to deliver and their brand ethos.
The immediate focus must be on achieving greater drivetrain efficiency, and this is what we see defining the third wave. The competitive landscape is ramping up significantly now that all manufacturers have established their product entry points. Models based on dedicated 800V architectures are leading the way, driving what we call the virtuous cycle. An efficient drivetrain inherently has a smaller battery, which makes the vehicle cheaper, lighter and easier to control, and offers a smaller carbon footprint in terms of raw materials. It also increases the range and speeds up charge times, building trust in the technology.
What are your thoughts on the current battery technology landscape and the future of silicon batteries?
Over the last 150 years, there have been two major developments in battery technology — one was the development of the lead-acid battery, and the other was the development of the lithium-ion battery. I have a healthy dose of skepticism when people talk about the ‘next best thing’ in battery technology because it won’t materialize. At best, it will be slow development of new technology, and that’s what has enabled the gradual adoption of electric vehicles, i.e., the development of lithium-ion technology to the point where the power and energy density is no longer a barrier to entry. Any step change in battery technology for EVs will need to offer massive cost reductions while maintaining power density, energy density and reliability and I do not see any of the new challenger technologies offering this yet.
Are you foreseeing any implications for the charging experience of vehicles? Which max power do you expect the industry will achieve in the passenger vehicle market when it comes to the DC charging capability of the vehicles?
We see fast-charging as a better enabler for electric vehicles than having bigger batteries or different chemistries with a higher energy density. So, making sure we have a robust fast-charging network is very important, as is making sure we have batteries that can take the fast charge. Because that means if you can charge the battery faster, you can have a smaller battery. This means lighter weight and a more efficient vehicle. In turn, it’s going to cost less because you have a smaller battery. There is a global limitation in lithium, so having to use less of it is a good thing. Therefore, we need more 800V, and 350kW chargers in the public infrastructure, and that will encourage further EV adoption, and vice versa.
Do you see any room for a new form of charging such as wireless charging in the industry you’re currently covering?
Not for the mass market. It’s an overly complicated form of charging that’s going to struggle to take off. What you gain from not having to plug in, you lose in efficiency and ultimately it will cost more because of energy losses from the wireless transfer. We don’t see it becoming a mainstream technology.
With the change in the level of electrification from mild hybrids to battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), how do you see that impacting inverter technology?
One of the benefits is that you have lower temperatures in EVs compared to hybrids, so you’re not having to put the inverter in such an extreme environment. The EV inverter needs to be more powerful as the EV drivetrain becomes the main traction drive. All the efforts we previously put into tuning throttles and fuel-injection systems will be transferred to inverter development, as we look to add ‘character’ to EV performance.
As the industry graduates from electrified vehicles that are based on platforms built for internal combustion engines (ICEs), to those underpinned by platforms designed ground-up for EVs, how do you see the location of inverters in the vehicle changing?
One of the things we’re seeing is the movement of the industry to integrated EDUs (electric drive units), so the inverter will start being integrated with the motor and transmission more than it is at the moment.
We are seeing a gradual migration from distributed ECU E/E architecture to a centralized zonal one with a central computer. How do you envisage the transformation of ECU consolidation?
There are some functions that you cannot centralize, and one of those is the inverter — particularly where the inverter starts being a differentiator in terms of performance, character and drivability. To do this well, you cannot abstract it out to a centralized controller. There is, however, some work that can be done by a centralized controller, and that is something that McLaren Applied has pioneered in automotive and motorsport, such as the centralized controller in a Formula 1 car. But when you really need to differentiate your drivetrain, it makes sense to have the computing power in the inverter as well.
As the E/E architecture becomes centralized, these changes will disrupt and flatten the supply chain. How do you see the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM’s) role changing?
There are two aspects to this. One is that OEMs are taking a much deeper interest in the supply chain because of recent disruptions and increased scrutiny. We’re seeing them contract directly with silicon manufacturers for their key components, whether that’s power modules, ECUs or other key chips. That will continue as a risk mitigation point into the future. Another is that we’ll see OEMs taking more control over software, as it becomes a differentiating factor on vehicles. So, you will have a lot of hardware that you could almost call generic, with the OEM offering points of differentiation through their software.
The use of e-fuels is one potential route toward zero-emission vehicles and, if developed, provides an alternative where the EV grid rollout is not so straightforward. Everything remains in the balance but are synthetic fuels the answer?
Generally, no. There may be some niche applications, but they will be excruciatingly expensive regardless of where the fuel is sourced. As a result, they will only be useful where other options can’t work. For example, if you have an expensive classic car, it might be an option to keep them running. It might also be an option in off-highway, commercial applications where re-charging is impossible due to a lack of grid infrastructure. But we certainly do not see it being useful for mass transit.
Claudio Vittori, associate manager, eMobility and charging components research lead, S&P Global Mobility says: “Efficiency will be over the next years one of the pivotal keywords in the automotive industry. In this regard, the role of semiconductors used in the power electronics components gets strategic allowing an important increase at the vehicle level as showcased by Tesla through the adoption of SiC in the inverter technology, now on the verge of becoming commonplace for all the automakers operating in the high voltage vehicle class. New technologies might have also the potential to further increase the efficiency but still some technical challenges have to be overcome and foreseen to come into play only after the second half of this decade.”
With the growth in the production of alternative propulsion vehicles, demand for high-voltage inverters has seen significant growth over the last several years, and this northbound trajectory will most likely get steeper throughout this decade. The demand for inverters from the electrified light-duty vehicle segment, which includes battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), full- and mild-hybrids, was about 21.5 million units in 2021. According to the S&P Global Mobility forecast, this demand is expected to grow at a 21% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2021 and 2033 to about 118.7 million units. While the majority of the current demand originates from hybrids, it is rapidly shifting toward BEVs. By the end of the decade, demand from BEVs will overtake the demand originating from all forms of hybrid vehicles combined. To learn more, download S&P Global Mobility’s Power Electronics—Inverter technology and market overview.