Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – Auto maker and supplier executives largely disagree on what powertrains will dominate in 2016 and beyond.

During a panel discussion dubbed “Far-Term Powertrain Solutions – 2016 and Beyond at the 2010 SAE World Congress here, panelists agree carbon-dioxide emissions must be reduced and fuel efficiency increased.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. Senior Vice President Minoru Shinohara is bullish on all-electric vehicles, such as the auto maker’s upcoming Leaf small car that goes on sale in December in the U.S.

Vehicles such as the Leaf, he says, will help reduce CO2 emissions 90% by 2050, compared with 2002 levels.

“We’re focusing on how (EVs) will change relations between mobility and society,” Shinohara says, noting Nissan is conducting several studies to determine electric-infrastructure needs.

Not only will EVs help clean the planet and reduce dependence on foreign oil, their advanced lithium-ion packs can be utilized in several ways following the life of the vehicle, he says.

“After (that), we will utilize (the batteries) for various purposes,” Shinohara says, adding Nissan has developed a concept called “4-R Business,” which stands for reselling, recycling, reusing and re-fabricating batteries.

A base-model Leaf will start at $32,780, with a $7,500 federal tax credit available to buyers reducing the sticker to $25,280. But Johannes-Joerg Rueger, senior vice president-engineering and diesel systems at Robert Bosch LLC, argues EVs will not be cost-efficient for years to come.

“Subsidies and incentives can overcome some initial hurdles, but they never solve the problem if the technology is not competitive from a cost perspective,” he says. “With battery costs at $850 per kW/h, EVs are currently not competitive whatsoever.”

Rueger displays a graph showing the cost of EVs. Even if battery costs were reduced by a third and crude oil was to top $130 a barrel, the vehicles still would not be competitive, he says.

In order to achieve cost parity with an internal-combustion engine, battery costs would have to be cut by more than two-thirds and fuel costs would have to more than double today’s level.

“Only then can EVs become competitive from a price and cost perspective,” Rueger says.

Panelists from General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. share similar outlooks for future powertrains, noting there is no “silver bullet” solution that will lead to vast improvements in CO2 reduction and fuel efficiency.

Gary Smyth, director of GM’S powertrain systems research lab, says the best way to determine the course of future powertrain development is to look to the past.

“In 1974, we passed the Clean Air Act,” he says. “Since then, we’ve taken (more than) 99% of noxious emissions out of vehicles. Nobody (back) then would have believed we could do that, but we did.

“We can do lot more with today’s propulsion systems, both gas and diesel, as you downsize and add direct-injection and electrification to those systems,” Smyth says, noting GM is working on all possible future powertrain technologies, including hybrid- and all-electric vehicles, as well as plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells.

Ford is on a similar road, says Gerhard Schmidt, vice president-research and advanced engineering, noting the auto maker has extensive research-and-development programs in all possible future propulsion systems.

“Not one size fits all,” he says. “We have a nice mixture of different technologies and fuels, including electricity.

Despite researching a number of powertrain technologies, Schmidt says there is plenty more efficiency to squeeze out of ICEs. “Advanced gas engines probably for the next 30 years will dominate our industry.”

bpope@wardsauto.com