Beneath your car's hood, there are belts hooked to the engine, running the power steering, air conditioning and other items that drag on the engine and cut gas mileage. But as fuel efficiency becomes paramount with high gas prices and pending government regulations, automakers across the world are trying to get rid of as many belts as they can, switching them to electric motors.
The power steering pump is likely to be the first casualty. Toyota Motor Corp., General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. already have electric power steering on some models, with more in the works, and they report fuel efficiency gains of up to 8 percent.
Other manufacturers and parts suppliers also are using or developing the motors, which could spread to air conditioning and power brake assist devices run by belts that suck power from the engine.
"It's one of the top technologies on percent of fuel returned for the dollar that you put in," said Ali Jammoul, Ford's chief engineer for chassis in North America. "All that parasitic drag is gone when you remove the pump off the engine."
Ford, which launched electric power steering in January on gasoline versions of the Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner small sport utility vehicles, reports an 8 percent fuel economy increase. The electric motors already were in use on hybrid models.
But fuel economy isn't the only benefit. Electric power steering has been linked to sensors so a car parallel parks itself, such as the system used on some Lexus models. The Ford system compensates for the crown in a road, eliminating drift. And the motors can be tied to sensors that stop a car from leaving its lane unless the driver wants it to.
Because there is no power steering fluid to monitor, no belt to check and far fewer moving parts, maintenance costs are lower, manufacturers say.
Steering feel also can be changed electronically from a softer feel for highway driving to a tighter, more sporty setting for winding roads.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it was on three quarters of all our models in five years because the advantages are huge," said Paul Williamsen, national manager of Lexus College, a training school for dealers who sell Toyota's luxury brand.
Toyota already has electric power steering on multiple models from top-line Lexuses to the popular new Camry to its youth-oriented Scion small cars.
Eliminating the power steering pump and fluid also helps gas mileage by shedding weight, said Williamsen, who reports a 3-to-5 percent fuel efficiency gain depending on model.
"It has absolutely saved us a four-pound lump of iron that would have been sitting there in the engine bay," Williamsen said.
At Chrysler LLC, which is working to bring electric power steering to its new models, engineers are looking at linking them to multiple safety systems including compensation for crosswinds.
The motors also will help make manufacturing more efficient, bringing down costs, said Donna Hale, Chrysler's manager for steering systems.
"You don't have to worry about assembling multiple parts in a vehicle," she said.
Bruce Belzowski, assistant research scientist with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, sees a mad rush to electrify belt-drive components once Congress raises corporate average fuel economy standards.
But with that rush comes a downside. If manufacturers are forced to install the motors before adequate durability testing, they could end up causing quality problems, Belzowski said.
"The bad news is the manufacturers have to do it in a relatively short period of time, so there is the potential for glitches in the system," he said.
Ford, which has pledged to place the technology on 80 to 90 percent of its North American models within four years, has data showing a 50 percent improvement in steering warranty costs for the Escape and Mariner, Jammoul said.
For automakers, especially the Detroit Three, which are struggling to keep market share from eroding to Asian competitors, making the change to electric motors and electronic controls is critical.
"The paradigm shift to the more electronic-laden vehicle is significant and has the potential to really differentiate which companies are going to survive in the future based on how well they can make this major transition," Belzowski said.