Why Start-Stop Vehicle Tech Is Important (& What It Is)

Updated: The market for electric vehicles is moving more slowly than expected. That’s the consensus from battery makers like Ener1 (s HEV) and Johnson Controls (s JCI), and that’s also apparent when you look at the earnings statements from companies like lithium-ion battery maker A123 Systems (s AONE), which isn’t yet making much money off of its electric car battery sales. So in the meantime, companies like Johnson Controls are focusing more heavily on what’s called “start-stop” vehicle technology, which is a system that automatically cuts off the engine of a gas-powered vehicle while it’s idling, and the technology is starting to gain momentum in Europe.

Start-stop technology first emerged in Europe in 2007 in response to carbon reduction regulations. The technology can provide a 5 to 12 percent improvement in fuel economy — most often less than a hybrid or EV — and when combined with other fuel-efficient technology can provide 18-percent efficiency improvements, according to Johnson Controls.

Johnson Controls sells 3 million start-stop enabled batteries into Europe every year. According to industry estimates (from Johnson Controls and Pike Research) the global stop-start vehicle market could reach between 35 million units sold by 2015, according to Johnson Controls, and Pike’s stat is 37 million units by 2020 (Updated).

While a 5- to 12-percent improvement in fuel efficiency might not be a revolution, the benefits of start-stop tech is that it’s a whole lot cheaper than deploying EVs and can also be added onto a standard internal combustion car. Pike Research analyst John Gartner told me for a very basic start-stop system, it can cost as little as $300 extra for the automaker. It’s essentially the low-hanging fruit for standard cars, and can be even easier to implement than biofuels, given biofuels tend to need the additional fueling infrastructure.

Johnson Controls says it’s investing $420 million into stop-start technology between now and 2015 (not including these Chinese market). Compare that to Johnson Controls’ recent attempt to dissolve its joint venture with French battery maker Saft to sell lithium-ion batteries to the automotive sector. Johnson Controls feels the JV, which was only for the automotive market, was holding it back from entering the grid battery market, and the EV market is moving more slowly than expected, explained Alex Molinaroli, VP and president of power solutions for Johnson Controls, in an interview with me recently.

However as start-stop technology has started to take off in Europe, the U.S. has lagged behind because of a lack of carbon reduction regulations. As of early 2011, only three start-stop models were on sale in the U.S., compared to the more than two dozen available in Europe, according to Pike Research. By 2013, 6.8 million start-stop units are expected to be sold in the U.S., according to Johnson Controls.