Yamaha Selling EV Drive Unit For Performance Vehicles

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A few days ago, Yamaha announced a new electric drive unit that achieves the industry’s highest output density. The unit puts out just under 470-horsepower with minimal weight. Not only does the company want to sell the units, but it will also help integrate them into prototype and production vehicles so new and existing automakers will come back for more.

Custom Drive Units Aren’t A New Thing for Yamaha

Since last year, the company has been accepting special orders for electric drive units ranging from 35-200 kW. As you’d expect from Yamaha, the lower-power units it has been offering are great for motorcycles, but are also good for other mobility applications, like scooters and neighborhood electric vehicles. There are also other off-road uses, like ATVs and UTVs.

Thus far, when a company “commissions” a custom drive unit from Yamaha, getting help from the company to integrate its electric drive unit into a new vehicle is part of the deal. “Yamaha will leverage its production technology and know-how in the casting, machining and assembly fields that give the company the flexibility to adapt to the needs of motorcycles and its numerous other products, its prototyping equipment and facilities and more in order to develop prototype motors tailoring to the specific requirements of clients in a short period,” the company said in a press release.

The New Yamaha Performance Drive Unit

Until now, the maximum power one could get from a Yamaha drive unit has been just under 270 horsepower. For an economy car, one of those units is probably OK. For a mild performance vehicle, two of their former top units (front and rear) would deliver around 540 horsepower. That’s not bad, but as Justin Hammer would say, it’s “not disco enough” for some drivers.

Apparently Yamaha agrees with Hammer that size does matter (don’t let anybody tell you different), so it decided to go all out and produce an 800 volt drive unit that puts out 470 ponies per axle. Add a second unit to the front of the vehicle (shame on you if you’d even consider making a front-wheel-drive EV), and you’d get a total of about 940 horsepower. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Like many Japanese companies, the company decided to add some lightness while it was at it. “The main feature of this newly developed electric motor is its compact construction that treats the mechanical and electrical components as a single entity, integrating the gear and inverter into one unit.”

By having a compact and lightweight drive unit that puts that kind of power out, you could build a pretty powerful EV.

If you want to see the unit for yourself, Yamaha Motor plans to exhibit the 350 kW class unit and its other electric motor prototypes at the Automotive Engineering Exposition 2021 Yokohama, scheduled for May 26 to May 28, 2021.

A Bigger Deal Than It Sounds Like

Yamaha’s drive units might not seem like a big deal until you compare what they put out to vehicles on the road. The Model S Plaid puts out 1020 peak horsepower (Yamaha’s torque numbers aren’t available to compare), which is only 80 horsepower more than a dual-motor car powered by Yamaha’s new drive units. In other words, you can get similar performance to Tesla’s current top performer if you can shave the weight a bit.

The extra help you get in the deal make this a pretty decent shortcut to build a high performance EV. Not only does Yamaha build most of the electronics into the drive unit, but the company will also help you design a car that works well with its drive units and make changes to the units themselves as needed. Instead of having to build a drive unit that can handle that kind of performance from scratch, you can get started a lot faster.

When you consider all the work and cost it took for Tesla to get to where it is with its drive units (many early units failed and were replaced on Tesla’s dime), that’s a pretty hefty value proposition Yamaha is offering for an aspiring EV manufacturer. New market entrants and existing automakers alike can benefit from this.

Yamaha Is Not A Questionable Supplier

If a new startup or a company without much experience building transportation products were to offer such a high power electric motor, it would be a questionable proposition. If you purchase a bunch of drive units that subsequently break, your new EV business could get into a lot of financial trouble. This happened to Tesla with some of its early drive units that needed replacement, and is an ongoing (but relatively small) financial drain for the company as more older Model S vehicles find their way into service centers under warranty over time.

The old saying goes “good judgment comes from experience, which comes from bad judgment.” I’d add that gaining experience is expensive. It’s important to learn what works and doesn’t work, and doing that on the fly can add up to a lot of expense.

Yamaha isn’t a newcomer to building vehicles, though. The original Yamaha musical instruments company has been around since Torakusu Yamaha repaired an organ in 1887 and then built his own. The company later got into building vehicles of all kinds in the 1950s, relying on its prior experience building precision parts for musical instruments.

Since that time, Yamaha has learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work. The company has had its successes and failures. It has also had a lot of experience supplying engines to other companies, like when Ford built the original Taurus SHO. Today, it is building everything from small industrial engines to large V8 engines for Volvo.

Yamaha is no Johnny-come-lately to electric vehicles, either. Its first electric 2-wheeled vehicles came out in 1975, and it has been working on small EVs and generators ever since. The company has plenty of experience working with electric motors, and is willing to put that experience to work for other manufacturers. That also means it assumes at least some of the risk if things go wrong.

If I were running a new EV program, either as a new company or for an established automotive manufacturer, I’d seriously consider Yamaha’s offerings in this case to avoid the expensive trial-and-error that such a venture would involve.

Source: Yamaha press release

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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