For years, automotive batteries have had an image problem. Compared to most automotive service parts and procedures, batteries have lacked the glamour and importance of safety-related components such as brake friction, or advanced electronics such as GPS and traction control. It is, however, a high-technology business that’s becoming more important as vehicles rely more and more on electricity to do tasks that used to be driven by belt and pulley.
The market outlook
Look for a strong selling season in many parts of the country, as winter driving approaches and summer takes its toll. The relationship between summer heat and winter driving is rarely appreciated, especially when shops are swamped with cooling system and A/C work, but it’s real.
According to Ed Danyluk, Sales Manager, National Accounts for Johnson Controls’ Automotive Systems Group, “In our opinion, the Canadian market is poised for a significant increase in winter battery sales as a result of an exceptionally hot summer in most regions. Contrary to popular belief, it’s heat that’s destructive to a battery’s service life, not cold. The chemistry of batteries mean that increased temperatures accelerates the rate at which the innards of the battery, namely sulfuric acid, eats away at the battery’s internal components. When you have an exceptionally warm summer, such as we had in many regions, it represents a pot of gold at the end of the battery rainbow for the upcoming winter period.”
The lingering effects of heat aren’t the only factor at play when outside temperatures drop, as overall electrical loads continue to increase. “People don’t realize how much they demand from their cars”, says James Chew, vice-president, Orbital and military for Exide Technologies, who adds, “It’s not just an office on wheels, now it’s a house on wheels. Laptop computers, VCR’s, cell phones and other accessories are in addition to power options, high end stereos, running or fog lights, and they are doing all this at 40 km/h. You know that the battery isn’t getting recharged.” Chew notes that the basic electrical power requirement of the average vehicles has more than doubled since the 1980’s. At the same time, alternators were reengineered into hotter, more confined underhood spaces, and were redesigned for light weight and less excess capacity when compared to units of the ‘Seventies.
Is AGM the future of automotive batteries?
Alternatives to flooded lead acid automotive batteries have been in development for years, but a real contender as an aftermarket replacement may finally achieve mass consumer appeal: absorbent glass mat technology. Based on Gates patents, two brands available from industry majors are Johnson Control’s Optima and Exide’s Orbital products. The difference between AGM and flooded lead acid batteries is significant, says Exide’s James Chew: “If you take a look at the two batteries, a conventional flooded cell has flat plates and an active material in a liquid acid bath. The grid has to support it’s own weight, so you have to use a lead alloy, which is not as energy dense as it could be if the grids were pure lead. With absorbent glass mat, instead of having a flat plate, you have a very long plate with active material and a spongy separator rolled like a jellyroll. The acid is absorbed into the separator, so you have a system that doesn’t leak. You don’t have any free liquid floating around the battery.”
The battery also looks different, and is roughly the size and shape of a “six-pack”. While spiral cell absorbent glass mat batteries are different, in one way they’re very familiar, declares Chew: “They operate the same way. They’re both lead acid batteries.”
Advantages include service lives two to three times longer than conventional designs, up to three times the shelf life, no gassing, all-position mounting, and faster charging. The downside is cost, which is approximately double that of conventional batteries. From the shop perspective, however, good coverage doesn’t necessarily require large inventories. The two sizes of Orbital, for example, (Groups 75 and 78) replace 17 different sizes.
Brands and upsell opportunities
While it may be early for high technology products such as Orbital and Optima to become household words in Canada, branding does have significance. The major manufacturers in the battery industry generally manufacture multiple brands, including private label for major service retailers. And for some consumers, connection to an OEM manufacturer, such as Motorcraft and Ford, or ACDelco and General Motors, implies that those brands are exclusive to certain manufacturers. Other consumers, however, gravitate toward name brands for safety or reliability components like batteries. Does connection to an automotive O.E.M help deliver a quality message? Bob Lloyd, senior product manager for ACDelco batteries states emphatically: “I think so. Our passenger car light truck line up reflects significant research and development. It’s one benefit of our commitment with General Motors and in the past with Delphi.”
ACDelco, like other industry majors such as Johnson Controls and Exide has a great deal of OEM experience, although Delphi themselves use consumer media to carve out a brand image in the increasingly complex market. “We like to think that consumers are drawn to the ACDelco brand name, relates Lloyd. “We like to sell branded product.”
Getting that brand consciousness into the mind of owners conditioned to “not open their hoods to strangers”, meaning import owners, can be a difficult task. Can the cautious Honda owner be easily swayed to alternate brands? “It’s a good question, says Lloyd. “In general, I’d say probably not, and not just for ACDelco but for any one brand of batteries.” Lloyd notes that warranties can play a part in selling the OE-addicted owner good aftermarket products, and also suggests that there’s probably no such thing as too much battery for Canadian automotive applications: “You’re not really overselling when you suggest a premium battery.”
Johnson Controls’ Ed Danyluk agrees: “While there is often no 100 percent alternative (to a specific OE fitment), those of us who have developed batteries for the aftermarket have developed “universal” batteries, with improved capacity. The primary issue is that they have no less than the OEM levels of cold cranking amperage. We can’t forget that there have been huge advances in duty cycle and life expectancy in conventional lead acid technology, by both improved metallurgy and internal construction.”
Is lead-acid dead?
What’s driving new battery technology? Environmental concerns and the push for greater fuel efficiency has been a major influence, starting with the premature launch of electric vehicles such as GM’s EV1, and now centering on hybrids such as Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight. While these vehicles remain niche players, a new generation of “hybrid lite” cars and light trucks will soon debut with integrated starter generators, or ISG’s. ISG vehicles use the battery to launch the vehicle from a standing start, after which the gasoline or diesel engine takes over. The additional demand from the batteries is obvious, as will be the need for more frequent and careful battery maintenance. ISG vehicles could be in showrooms as early as 2004. Another given is the major changes in store for the introduction of 42-volt (36 volt nominal) electrical systems, the first major change in automotive electrical architecture since the death of six-volt electrics in the early “Fifties. To add to the complication, several manufacturers plan mixed transitional models with both 42 and 14-volt systems on the same vehicle. Steering power assist and coolant pumping will be early converts to electric drive. Will absorbent glass mat or even more exotic battery technologies take over? It’s impossible to predict, although the need for greater energy density should drive out conventional lead-acid technology eventually. For now, though, flooded lead-acid has two virtues that are hard to beat: they’re cheap and reliable, if well maintained. And that maintenance a
spect, and sometimes the lack of it, will jump-start the automotive service sector this winter. As Exide’s James Chew states: “If you want to maintain the peak electrical performance of your car, you’re going to want to use the best battery that you can.”