Could China Get left Behind in Electrification Trends?

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Is China getting left behind in electrification trends by focusing on plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles? Is it ignoring alternatives that would achieve its goals of cutting emissions and reducing dependency on imported oil more quickly than full-on electrification? Paul Rivera, director of the global product group for hybrids and electrical systems at engineering firm Ricardo thinks so. “Up until about 2 years ago most of our activity was focused around full BEVs, PHEVs, HEVs. Now there is really strong push to get into mild hybridization,” he told me. Except in China, that is. “The Chinese OEMs are investigating range extenders and battery-electric vehicles,” says Rivera.

Now Rivera has a vested interest in touting mild hybridization, because Ricardo sells that technology. But it still got me to thinking that maybe the Chinese government should be considering mild hybridization. That begs the question: Is China wasting time pursuing advanced technologies – especially pure electric vehicles — which may not ever represent a viable option for large scale adoption? Should it switch its focus to more available technologies, such mild hybridization?

I say no. The government should go right ahead and push BEVs and PHEVS. That is technology that will have a place, perhaps a big one, in future vehicle choices. But China’s government should also give a nod to mild hybridization.

The technology is ready to go. It is the automakers in China who will have to create a market for it, however. They can do that by producing vehicles with equipped with mild hybridization at a reasonable price. The automakers must make the case to consumers that the efficiency gained is worth the marginal extra cost. And since the automakers will likely have to include some mild hybridization in their vehicles to meet the 5 liter/100 kilometers fuel efficiency requirement, they better get busy.

What exactly is mild hybridization? For our purposes it means a more powerful start-stop system, one that uses a 48 volt battery combined with a relatively small battery and other systems such as regenerative braking to achieve fuel savings. Naturally Ricardo has such a product. Why else would Rivera by pimping the technology? Ricardo’s system is call HyBoost, and it can be added to vehicles for a little as $1,500 for up to 44 percent better fuel economy, says Rivera.

German automakers are the ones who first used a 48V system, says David Alexander of Navigant. They wanted something bigger than a 12V in order to improve driveability of cars with start-stop. Cars with 48V systems are just starting to be produced, says Alexander. The 48V system will be included on high-end vehicles to improve improve the driving feel (not for performance) and fuel economy, he says. The 48V system won’t be an option, figures Alexander. “ It will just be hidden underneath,” he says. “The OEMs don’t want to frighten people off saying new tech. It will cost the OEMs, he says, but “they are doing it to meet mileage requirements in top end” vehicles. At the low-end 48V systems might not have much use except to add some ability to drive on pure electric power for small, light cars because they are so fuel efficient anyway, says Alexander.

Seems like technology that is perfect for China as well, right? Automakers there must meet stiff the new fuel economy goal by 2020. And, says an executive at a foreign automaker that is expanding in China, the batteries that will be needed for the 48V systems are the kind that China is pushing anyway, i.e. iron phosphate.

Even though there isn’t much interest in 48V systems in China now, Ricardo is hopeful. I guess it has to be since that’s what it wants to sell in China. And since European automakers such as BMW and Audi will have cars in Europe with the technology in the next few years, they will be the likely first to try to sell vehicles with 48V systems in China.

Ricardo’s strategic division forecasts that mild hybridization will be huge part of the mix in China within five to seven years, says Rivera. Possibly. If foreign automakers can make the case for it in China, their local partners might also introduce it. They should. China doesn’t want to get left behind.

Article by Alysha Webb, a freelance automotive journalist and founder of ChinaEV Blog.

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