Cheap Wiring Harnesses Could Accelerate the Electric Car Revolution
Every Car Needs a Wiring Harness
No car – gasoline, electric, or otherwise – can work without electricity. And the humble wiring harness, an inexpensive component that bundles wires together in every vehicle, could ironically be hastening the demise of internal-combustion vehicles due to their complexity and low margins.
According to a report from Reuters, supplies of wiring harnesses were choked by the war in Ukraine in 2022. The country is a significant contributor to the world’s production of wiring harnesses, producing hundreds of thousands a year, fitted to new vehicles from brands all over the world.
Wiring harnesses are low-tech and low-margin parts, made with lots of low-cost manual labor from wire, plastic, and rubber – but cars can’t be built without them. Tight supply of wiring harnesses may accelerate the plans of some car brands to switch to a new generation of lighter, less complex harnesses that are more common to electric cars.
Gasoline cars still account for most new car sales globally. In 2021, four million electric cars were sold globally, doubling sales the year pervious – but they still amount to just six per cent of global sales. The pressure on production of wiring harnesses could indirectly accelerate the electric car revolution.
Why are harnesses for electric cars more complex? You’d think that with all of the technology in them, that electric vehicles would actually require more cabling. But the radical simplicity of their drivetrains – electric motors and batteries, but generally no transmissions, no fuel pumps, no injectors, no spark plugs – actually means that they require less complex wiring than a conventional vehicle.
Reuters interviewed executives from both automakers and suppliers that said supply-chain disruptions like the Ukraine crisis have prompted industry executives to consider shifting away from the cheap-labor wiring harness model, which also leans on countries like Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia, Poland, Serbia, and Romania.
Wiring harnesses for gasoline vehicles bundle cables stretching up to three miles in the average vehicle, connecting everything from engine components to seat heaters to windows. Almost every model’s is unique, so production is complex and highly manual.
On the other hand, many electric cars, led by Tesla, have much simpler harnesses with a fundamentally different concept, with harnesses made in sections on automated production lines to be modular and extremely light weight. These new “zonal” or “modular” harnesses are split into six or eight parts, which lets them be assembled in an automated fashion thanks to their reduced complexity.
In addition to electric car startup brands like Tesla, carmakers have already started looking at using modular wiring harnesses, which require fewer semiconductors and much less cabling. This saves space, makes the harnesses lighter, and improves range and performance. Modular harnesses also make it easier to upgrade vehicles wirelessly with over-the-air updates.
One company that has already developed a highly automated, flat, and easy-to-install modular harnesses is California-based startup CelLink. Investors include BMW and key auto industry suppliers Lear Corporation and Robert Bosch. CelLink’s new $125-million factory under construction in Texas will have 25 automated production lines, which can switch between different designs in 10 minutes or less. It is also looking at building a plant in Europe.
Getting Electric Cars to Market Faster
Modular wiring harnesses have another advantage when it comes to accelerating the electric car revolution: speed. Because of their incredible complexity and highly manual construction, conventional wiring harnesses can take up to 26 weeks to get into production. Modular harnesses, designed and specified on a computer, and put into production on automated lines, can be shipped in two weeks – a huge reduction in time-to-market.
That’s the kind of speed that startups as well as “legacy” automakers are looking for as they increasingly shift towards electric cars. For decades, the car business hasn’t had to move fast to think about wiring harnesses. But. global disruptions, and the electric car revolution, are changing that – quickly.
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