In 1900, Ferdinand Porsche and Ludwig Lohner introduced an electric car with battery-powered motors in the front wheels. It was seen as a sensation, but the technology never caught on as gasoline cars quickly took over the world.
More than a century later, in-wheel motors are making a comeback. Mounted on the rim of an electric vehicle’s wheels, the motor increases efficiency by delivering power directly to where it is needed.
“In-wheel motors are a game changer,” says Luka Ambrozic, chief commercial officer of Slovenia’s Elaphe Propulsion Technologies, one of the leading developers of the technology. They offer “the ultimate design freedom,” allowing vehicle manufacturers to “build better, smarter cars.”
With everything contained within the wheels, there is no need for other components such as a gearbox or axle, which normally transfers power from the outboard motor to the wheels.
This makes the car lighter, Ambrozic told CNN Business, and saves energy by reducing the distance the power has to travel. It also frees up space in the vehicle and allows the manufacturer to make the car more aerodynamic. A more aerodynamic vehicle requires less power, which can lead to smaller batteries and lighter vehicles, he added.
Elaphe, founded in 2006 by Gorazd Lampič and quantum physicist Andrej Detela, has designed in-wheel motors for many electric vehicles. Lightyear 0, notable for its curved solar panels built into its roof, is equipped with Elaphe-developed motors on each of its wheels. Lightyear says the car will go into production this year and will feature the world’s most efficient production engine.
Aptera Motors, another company developing solar electric vehicles, has contracted Elaphe to supply in-wheel motors for its lightweight three-wheeler designs, although production has yet to begin. And Lordstown Motors is using Elaphe’s shaft motors for its new line of Endurance electric trucks, which give the truck true four-wheel drive. Commercial production of the truck began in September.
These examples show that in-wheel motors can be used for both lightweight and heavy-duty applications, says Ambrozic, although designs must be tailored for each purpose. “It’s not about having just one engine,” he says.
But some industry experts believe that in-wheel motors may have limited use in mainstream markets. James Edmondson, senior technology analyst specializing in electric vehicles for market research firm IDTechEx, noted that most major automakers have based their EV platforms on internal engines. The introduction of in-wheel technology would require a complete redesign of the system. “If you have to start from scratch and build your vehicle from the ground up, it’s a big investment,” he says.
Manufacturers are also concerned about durability and suspension, says Edmondson. In-wheel motors are much more exposed to the elements and road impacts and vibrations. The motors also make the wheels heavier, which reduces ride comfort, although Edmondson points out that this can be offset by weight stored elsewhere in the vehicle.
According to a 2021 report by research firm Markets and Markets, the demand for in-wheel motors is expected to rise in line with the growth of electric vehicle sales, and will be worth more than $4 trillion by 2026, up from $800 million in 2021. .
The report says that as electric vehicles become more popular, automakers are turning to in-wheel motors for their space-saving capabilities and better energy efficiency.
Another major player is Protean Electric, which was acquired in 2021 by British electric vehicle manufacturer Bedeo. This year, the company announced a new partnership with Dongfeng Motor Corporation Technical Center, China’s state-owned automobile manufacturer.
Elaphe is also eyeing China for expansion. It plans to ramp up to more than 100,000 wheel motors a year in Slovenia by next year, before starting production in the United States and China.
“Now is the time for trade expansion and production expansion,” says Ambrozic. “We want to stay one step ahead of the market to make sure we’re ready when the opportunities are right.”