By Andreas Cremer and Laurence Frost
GENEVA, March 8 Carmakers are going back to the
drawing board in the hunt for fuel-saving technologies as hopes
that electric vehicles will be the silver bullet for CO2
emissions look increasingly forlorn.
There is a growing awareness that conventional hybrids and
slow-selling battery cars simply won't be enough to meet rigid
EU emissions limits.
Among those showing off new ideas at the Geneva car show
this week, Volkswagen presented its diesel-electric
XL1 - a low-slung two-seater that burns less than a litre (0.26
U.S. gallons) of fuel per 100 kilometres (62 miles) - while PSA
Peugeot Citroen rolled out a compressed-air hybrid.
Automakers are broadly on track to meet the interim goal of
trimming vehicles' average CO2 output to 130 grams (4.6 ounces)
per kilometre by 2015. But drastic steps are needed to meet the
95 gram target set for 2020 and the potential for tougher
standards after that.
"We can't get the necessary gains we need with traditional
technology any more. We're seeing a real break with the past,"
Peugeot innovation chief Jean-Marc Finot said in an interview.
Arthur Wheaton, automotive expert at Cornell University,
offers a succinct summing up of the problem. "Battery technology
has not been able to resolve the century-old problem of too much
weight and limited range capability," he said.
Despite the billions spent by the likes of Renault-Nissan
to develop electric cars, optimism about their future
has "dampened considerably", KPMG said in a survey in January.
World leader Toyota, which launched the Prius
hybrid in 1997, dropped plans for broader sale of the
battery-powered eQ last September, saying it had misread demand.
GM's Opel scrapped plans for a fully electric Adam
subcompact, citing high costs, while VW's luxury Audi brand
shelved the electric R8 coupe and Nissan slashed the
price of its Leaf after disappointing sales.
"Demand for electric cars isn't where we thought it would
be," said Francois Bancon, Nissan's upstream development chief.
"We're in a very uncertain phase, and everyone's a bit lost."
For automakers battered by Europe's prolonged market slump,
the investment costs are a big concern. Several have joined
forces to develop new technologies, most offering some degree of
"hybridisation" of combustion engine and electric power.
"By now we would have seen a standardisation based on the
pure electric car if it had turned out to be the solution," said
Guillaume Faury, Peugeot's executive vice president for research
and development. "That's why we're seeing so many micro-hybrids,
mild hybrids, full hybrids, rechargeable hybrids, range
extenders and battery cars."
Another response has been to shrink engines, removing
cylinders and adding turbochargers to maintain horsepower.
VW's XL1, which draws heavily on aerodynamics, is powered by
a 0.8 litre twin-cylinder engine. That substantially undercuts
the fuel consumption of the 1 litre three-cylinder Up! mini,
VW's smallest and cheapest production car to date.
Peugeot's Hybrid Air system, developed with German supplier
Robert Bosch, will use a separate hydraulic motor
driven by nitrogen compressed by energy recovered from braking.
Longer-term relief may come from cars driven by hydrogen
fuel cells, which can cover much longer distances on a single
top-up and refuel more quickly than battery cars.
Fuel-cell vehicles, in common with rechargeable models such
as Nissan's Leaf, are propelled by electric motors. Instead of a
battery, however, a "stack" of cells combines hydrogen with
oxygen to generate the electricity.
Daimler, Ford and Nissan have announced
joint plans to launch affordable fuel-cell cars within five
years, while Toyota and BMW aim to do so by 2020.
But even if those goals are met, initial sales volumes are
unlikely to make a significant contribution to the next round of
EU-mandated CO2 cuts, experts say.
To make up the difference, carmakers have little choice but
to squeeze more gains from existing engines as the costs and
risks of developing breakthrough technologies are too high for
most, said Klaus Stricker, a consultant with Bain & Company.
"I don't expect anything new to come into play in the next
five to ten years," Stricker said.
Output of the XL1 - VW is planning to build 250 this year -
will be too low to make a dent in the German group's fleet
emissions any time soon. But the vehicle, touted by its maker as
the world's most fuel-efficient production car, could be used by
VW to push for "supercredits" with the European Commission.
Supercredits allow manufacturers to produce a quota of cars
that exceed the CO2 target if they also make vehicles with very
low emissions. German carmakers have most to gain from this
because they could reduce the changes to their luxury cars.
Their poorer mass-market cousins, however, face a more
"There's more and more regulation, but customers want to pay
less and less," Nissan's Bancon said. "So we have to cut prices
and increase technology content - that's the headache we're