Get used to this term: 48-volt electrical system. If there’s been any consistency at all in the automotive world, it’s been power. It was simple: Vehicles were outfitted with all 12 volts — unless you had a 1966 or older VW; those were 6 volts. But while that number has stood for a half-century or more, vehicles have been changing rapidly and adding features that consume power. It’s time for a switch, and even the timeless Jeep Wrangler is packing a 48-volt electrical system in its latest generation.
Why the jump to 48 volts? For one, your seat warmers and coolers, 700-watt audio system, ambient lighting, and the stop/start function that shuts your engine off at traffic lights all consume power. That’s not the whole story, though. Automakers have also been switching mechanical equipment for electric and electronic components. Think pumps for water, fuel and oil. In addition, while turning your car used to be a direct mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the front wheels, now a lot of cars are drive-by-wire or at least electronically assisted. That all requires power.
Then There’s the New Stuff
New safety features that are the building blocks of autonomous vehicles — blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, radar cruise control and parking assist — are already available in cars. More advanced features, which will require even more power, are coming.
More Than Just Keeping Up
The good news is that automakers see the 48-volt electrical system as more than just a means to feed the growing electronic beast in your vehicle. They see it as an opportunity to have the best of both worlds: a 12-volt system that will handle the traditional chores, and a 48-volt system for the high-demand stuff. That capacity allows some of the power generated by the 48-volt system to be used for both performance and fuel savings.
A Mild Hybrid
That 48-volt system can power a small electric motor that coexists with your gasoline or diesel engine and alternator. It’s not a full hybrid, but a mild hybrid, offering most of the value — in terms of fuel economy — of a full hybrid. However, you won’t be limited to driving a cramped, eco-friendly sedan. You can have a mild hybrid Wrangler if you want to save the environment while crawling up desert rock formations.
A New Type of Turbo
The 48-volt system can also power an electric turbocharger. If you’ve driven a turbo, you’ve probably experienced turbo lag, that little pause between stepping on the throttle and actually getting the acceleration. That’s because the turbo is building up the exhaust gases that propel it. Switch that to electricity — an e-charger — and turbo lag disappears.
The 2018 and 2019 vehicles with 48-volt systems are just the leading edge of a major change in the way power is distributed and used in cars, trucks and SUVs. There are more on the way, and someday, probably sooner than we think, we’ll look back on the 12-volt system as an antique.
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Mike Hagerty is an automotive journalist whose work has been featured on radio, TV, in print and online since 1997. He's the Publisher and Editor of MikeHagertyCars.com, and contributes car reviews to the Los Altos Town Crier and losaltosonline.com. Previous outlets have included KFBK and KFBK.com in Sacramento, California, the ABC television affiliates and Hearst-Argyle and Emmis radio stations in Phoenix, Arizona; AAA magazines for Arizona, Oklahoma, Northwest Ohio, South Dakota and the Mountain West and BBCCars.com.