By Michael Kanellos
Remember how Batman in the 1960s TV show could suddenly burn rubber by hitting a big red button on his dashboard? Luxury car buyers will be getting something similar in the near future.
Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS), which can provide cars, buses and trucks with a jolt of accelerating power, will likely start to be incorporated into some commercially available cars in about 12 to 18 months, according to Steve Wainwright, vice president of sales and marketing for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Freescale Semiconductor (NYSE:FSL). Freescale, formerly Motorola Semiconductor, is the largest chipmaker in the automotive market.
Freescale this week announced it is working with McLaren Automotive Systems for a KERS for Formula 1 racers for the 2010 season.
KERS are similar to the electronic systems in hybrids like the Toyota (NYSE:TM) Prius, but the electronic power is deployed differently. With a KERS, energy harvested from regenerative charges a bank of lithium-ion batteries or an ultracapacitor in a vehicle.
That power, however, is not used to propel the car down the road like in a Prius. Instead, it is stored there until the driver needs a sudden blast of power. A car could be engineered, for instance, to shut off its gas engine at a traffic light to save fuel. The KERS would kick in when the driver next touched the accelerator to get the car moving from a standstill. The gas engine would only have to flip on after the car is rolling.
A car could also be engineered so the KERS would goose acceleration. Conceivably, a manufacturer could put the Tesla Roadster-quickness into a conventional car at a lower price. KERS work by delivering stored energy to an electrical generator linked to the car's other systems.
Racers in the Formula 1 circuit will begin to take advantage of KERS systems in the 2009 season. The Federation International de l'Automobile (NYSEARCA:FIA) actually changed racing rules to take energy into account in the sport. Under the new rules, racers will be able to expend 400 kilojoules per lap. (A joule meter will be installed in cars.) Drivers can use gas or electric power to get to the limit. If a driver is coming toward the end of a lap and has only used 380 kilojoules, count on him or her to tweak the button to max out. The button will probably be hit quite a bit in passing situations.
"You essentially have a booster button," he said.
Although KERS will enter the racing circuit in 2009, the concept will be more finished and polished in 2010. Formula 1 cars are finicky creatures and Freescale is working with McLaren to ensure smooth power delivery. To that end, Freescale is designing the entire KERS system, not just selling McLaren chips.
"You have to get close synchronization," he said. "You get this massive whack of power but what do you do with it?"
Other companies working on KERS include APowerCap, a Ukrainian-based company with an ultracapacitor for a KERS. Ultracapacitors store energy like lithium-ion batteries but can charge and discharge quicker, say advocates. But they are also not as familiar and hearty as batteries, say battery fans.
Although racing and high-end cars will be showcases for the technology, KERS have a blue-collar background. Manufacturers put them in buses and trucks so they consume less gas at intersections.