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Building a smarter alternator

David Sickels is the Associate Editor of Tire Review and Fleet Equipment magazines. He has a history of working in the media, marketing and automotive industries in both print and online.


In the past 15 or 20 years, as fleets began facing stricter legislative and power requirement changes in their trucks, the OEMs in turn began facing demands to produce higher-quality alternators that could meet these standards.

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“So, what they’ve demanded from us is higher efficiency and lower cost,” says Clive Harley, vice president of engineering for Prestolite Electric, Broad-Ocean Motors. “In the 1990s, those alternators’ efficiency was somewhere around 60%. In the alternator designs that we have today, we’re able to get our alternators up into the high 70s, low 80% efficiency mark.”

As engineers discovered new materials, insulation and bearings to design a better product, OEMs have also experimented with introducing computerized controllers into these components.

Rod Spangler, application engineering manager for BorgWarner, says these “smart alternators” are designed to take advantage of telematics to optimize aspects like battery management and fuel efficiency.

“Many systems today are auto-start types, and they simply run to a predetermined voltage set point,” Spangler says. “Adaptation of LIN-controlled alternators allows bi-directional sharing of information that allows the vehicle controller to optimize the voltage set point for battery management and fuel efficiencies. The vehicle controller can also monitor temperature and other data to determine the state of health of the alternator, which can lead to better diagnostics. This means a smart alternator with predictive maintenance and communication that aids in troubleshooting.”


Prestolite’s Harley says that as OEMs like Navistar experiment with developing their own, unique computerized logic systems designed to control more and more components of the vehicle, parts like the alternator will just continue to get smarter.

“It’s just like if you buy a car nowadays, the engine control unit is all computerized, and you as the driver and the operator have no clue what’s going on under there. It’s the same thing,” he says. “As the driver of the truck wants it to perform a certain way, the OEM will have to configure the computer system within the vehicle to achieve that.”



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