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The size of the eBeam rear axle and motor unit is a little jarring at first when seen from the rear. But engineers said the motors have been fully ruggedized to withstand typical off-road abuse. (SAE / Chris Clonts)

Magna shows off electric offroad powertrain, in-cabin tech

Magna ready to produce complete electric powertrain for offroad-capable vehicles.

If a mid-20th century engineer could time travel and see Magna’s electric off-road powertrains, they might ask “why is the rear differential so gigantic?” But that’s no differential. It’s a powerful electric motor fully integrated into each front and rear axle for full 4x4 traction. And Magna said the system will “very likely” be seen on a production vehicle within a few years.

At its 2023 tech day presentation, held at a Michigan offroad park and Magna International HQ in Troy, Mich., SAE Media had the opportunity to drive prototype vehicles offroad and sample Magna’s in-cabin features.

What Magna calls its Etelligent Terrain dual motor/solid axle package was installed on the frame and body of a Jeep Gladiator pickup. The package consists of the eBeam at the rear, a coaxial structural axle with on-board inverter. It has a gross axle weight rating of 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg). The motor is a hairpin-wound permanent-magnet type that generates 238 peak hp (178 kW) and 568 Nm (419 lb-ft). A locking differential is included. The modular axle was powered by an 83-kWh battery pack that brought the weight of the vehicle to 6,360 lb. (2,884 kg), roughly 1,500 lb. (680 kg) more than the original version. Engineers said that in a production vehicle, the battery capacity probably would need to be bigger to meet a desirable range specification. Up front, what Magna calls the Steerable eBeam generates 188 kW (252 hp) and 389 Nm (287 lb-ft) in a unit with a GAWR of 3,500 pounds (1,588 kg). This axle’s inverter is on the truck’s frame, as there isn’t enough room for it on the axle assembly.

Despite all this new packaging, engineers managed to deliver a vehicle front/rear weight distribution at 50/50.

Crawling up the rocky “Mount Magna,” as the highest point at the off-road park is known, presented little challenge for the eBeam axles. It was possible to generate considerable wheel slip, but as soon as the Etelligent system recognized what was happening, it compensated the torque apportionment and continued progress with no jerky motions.

An ICE-powered Gladiator was available for comparison. And while it had few problems with the same terrain, there certainly was – as one might expect, more noise and start/stop adventure in traversing the steeper and more challenging obstacles.

Descending uneven, rutted terrain was one of the smoothest experiences of the kind, thanks to the manner in which the system adapts the traction motors’ regeneration characteristics on the fly. Brake-based hill-descent systems can be jarring as they grab and release multiple times, sometimes in short succession, during a descent.

Having the inverter packaged on the axle is a nifty trick that keeps more weight down low, while also shaving some material costs. The real engineering prowess, said Magna Chief Engineer of Electrification Mike Dowsett, was ruggedizing the inverter, which has to take the punishment of being on an unsprung part of the truck. “Most of the engineering to ensure the eBeam inverter electronic components are shock- and vibration-proof involves additional mounting points, thicker bracketry and careful selection of components that sit close [flat] to the [printed circuit boards], rather than standing up high off the board, such as electrolytic capacitors,” Dowsett said. “Placing heavier components, like transformers, close to the PCB edge right next to the housing is a ‘must-do.’” He also said that PCBs are oriented so that they face reduced forces. “Vertical loads from shock are higher than lateral loads, so standing a PCB on its edge offers more robustness,” Dowsett explained.

The suspension consisted of quad-link coil springs at both ends, and the vehicle had the following powertrain-control features: Hill ascent/descent mode, torque distribution with selectable high and low ranges, slip control, active damping and user-selectable regeneration.

Elsewhere in the offroad park, SAE Media was afforded the opportunity to do a few acceleration runs, where the “instant torque” of EVs made for exciting opportunities to spray mud while digging in. Materials Magna shared at the event claimed an AWD 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time of 4.5 seconds and a RWD time of 7.9 seconds; although there was no instrumented testing, the EV certainly felt much quicker.

The Etelligent Terrain package was being shown a little less than two years after Magna showed a similar setup, called Etelligent Force, which was installed on a GMC Sierra HD pickup truck and put a premium on maximum payload and towing prowess.

In-vehicle tech
Back at Magna’s headquarters, the company displayed an array of systems and technologies it is developing, from the creation of a new door hanger claimed to be comprised of 98% sustainable materials by using natural fibers pressed with resin. The component is lighter while offering more impact protection.

Elsewhere, Magna showed off thermoplastic removable roof panels that can include features such as solar cells, lights and even the potential to use the panel to signal traffic during a freeway tire change or other emergency. Those aren’t in the supply pipeline yet, and a spokesperson said they were designed “on spec” to inspire OEMs with the possibilities.

Out in the parking lot, Magna demonstrated a host of safety features. One, its thermal imaging technology accounts for 98% of the current thermal-imaging market. A demonstration showed the system able to identify pedestrians in virtual pitch black combined with simulated fog. A pedestrian suddenly popping up in front of the vehicle instantly triggered emergency braking.

And the company showed off the driver impairment-sensing technology developed by recently acquired safety-technology supplier Veoneer. The system uses a small pod on top of the steering column to detect ethanol fumes in the cabin by way of a non-dispersive infrared (NDIR) sensor, while cameras watch the driver for distracted behaviors such as gazing away from the road. Olivia Eddy, a features engineer originally with Veoneer, said teams are working to see how they can integrate the Veoneer system into a rear-view-mirror-based system that Magna already was developing.

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