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IC engines to dominate market for a long time

SHANGHAI – Because of their vastly superior numbers and lower costs, regular internal combustion engines will have far more influence on CO2 emissions in the coming years than new energy vehicles.

Plug-in hybrids and electric cars grabbed much of the attention at Auto Shanghai 2009 and were the focus of the 2009 Presidents’ Forum and CBU/CAR‘s 14th Annual International Conference, but internal combustion will probably power the majority of cars at least until 2050, said Frank Zhao, chief technical officer for Geely Group, China’s independent carmaker.

“In the future, the market will belong to very small cars,” said Zhao. “Right now, Chinese want to buy big cars, to show they are rich.”

At Auto Shanghai 2009, nearly every company had a new energy vehicle on display, but they also introduced big cars. Geely and Chery, two of China’s most publicized independent brands, each decided to subdivide into three or four brands, including big cars to compete with Toyota Camrys, Jaguars and Mercedes-Benz. Toyota introduced its biggest car, the Crown, and Porsche used the show for the world introduction of its 4-door Panamera, with fuel consumption of 10.8 l/100 km.

“In 20 years,” said Zhao, “I will be 65 and ready to retire, and the traditional internal combustion engine will still be dominating.”

Dominik Declercq, China representative of European automakers’ association ACEA, agrees that electric vehicles will be slow to grab important market share.

“The first electric cars will arrive in 2010, 2011,” he said, “and 5-10 percent of the market could be electric vehicles in 2020.”

Fuel cells, the generally accepted answer for personal transportation in the long term, “remains on the horizon for the far away future,” he said. “Hydrogen costs need to come down 99 percent.”

And as for electric cars, he said, “Batteries are not where they should be for capacity, durability, volume and cost.”

Geely showed a cute, small 3+1 concept electric vehicle at the 2009 Shanghai auto show called IG, and it has several plug-in hybrid prototypes, but the key to Geely’s success will be advanced internal combustion engines, said Zhao, like a 1.3-liter supercharged GDI diesel it is developing to meet Euro V exhaust standards.

“I believe in the electric vehicle in the long term,” said Zhao, but now “we have to focus on internal combustion engines,” including those with alternate fuel technologies such as CNG, LPG and methanol. “You do’t put all the eggs in one basket.”

BYD Auto, which is counting on electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids to carry it into overseas markets, had a reply later in the day from its overseas trade divisio’s general manager, Henry Li:

“We do’t have that many eggs to play with.”

Geely plans to offer new energy vehicles under each of its new brands: Gleagle, Emgrand and Shanghai Englon, but because of affordability questions. “We may be launching in different time frames. A lot of cost comes in the beginning, so you put new technology in market segments where customers can and are willing to pay.”

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