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Gas the key to ICE efficiency

Everybody loves Ray: The original Kia Ray hybrid concept car from the 2010 Geneva motor show.

CNG and LPG remain unturned efficiency stepping-stones to hybrid and fuel cell – Kia

12 Mar 2012


KIA believes gaseous fuels are the key to significant efficiency increases for the internal combustion engine (ICE), which is expected to power the vast majority of vehicles worldwide for decades to come.

As the major global car-makers race to develop hybrid, plug-in hybrid, electric and – from the middle of this decade – fuel cell vehicles, Kia believes that gaseous fuel such as compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) remain relatively untapped in the battle to increase the efficiency of conventional engines.

Kia’s global powertrain engineering chief, Joachim Hahn, told GoAuto at last week’s Geneva motor show that “gas has great potential”.

“So far, fuel as one part of the (efficiency) story has not been taken too much into account,” he told us.

“We can easily see that taking some alternative fuels gives the opportunity to take some big steps.

“For example, natural gas for me seems to be an attractive way. From the European perspective, there are a number of reasons. Just by taking CNG as a fuel – assuming the same efficiency of the hardware, the engine – you can save about 20 per cent.”

Kia’s parent company Hyundai revealed what it described as the world’s most efficient “real” (non-electrified) car at Geneva, in the form of its facelifted i20 hatchback fitted with a new 1.1-litre turbo-diesel engine that emits just 84 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

That is 5g/km less than Australia’s current CO2 champion, the Toyota Prius (89g/km), but the Japanese giant also used the Geneva show to stage the world debut of its new Yaris Hybrid, which emits an even lower 79g/km, but will not be sold in Australia.

Toyota also revealed the potential of its petrol-electric Hybrid Synergy Drive system by using Geneva to also reveal the super-aerodynamic but strikingly ugly FT-Bh concept, which employs a hybrid drivetrain that emits just 49g/km.

 center imageLeft: Toyota FT-Bh concept and the Kia Ray EV city car now being tested in Korea. Bottom of page: Kia Optima Hybrid.Asked where the efficiency race will end, Dr Hahn said the ultimate efficiency of battery-electric (BEV) and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) vehicles depends not just on CO2 costs in terms of manufacturing, but the varying levels of renewable energy sources available in the nations in which they are sold.

“At least it will stop at zero – I think we will not see negative numbers,” he said.

“That sounds like a joke, but there is some truth behind it because currently the certification procedure allows you to get big benefits out of hybrid concepts and especially out of pure electric vehicles – even down to zero, which we all know is not the fact as it has to do with the energy mix of the different markets.

“I know the European markets very well … and there is no single number. If we compare Germany with the Swiss, for example, there is the advantage to have a lot of energy coming from water, so they do not suffer that much from coal plants.

“Of course, these numbers are a little dangerous. My personal belief is that, as soon as some European governments see that a remarkable number of cars are on sale and are accepted by the customer in terms of hybrid and electric vehicles, I think they will rethink the situation because it also has to do with tax income.

“I’m convinced we’ll see some further decrease. Of course, if I would promise you zero only by technical improvements, you would be right to say I’m crazy.

“Maybe the answer is not the same worldwide, but at least for some markets I clearly see some potential for CNG.

Dr Hahn said countries with more natural gas supplies are likely to be keener to offer incentives on gaseous fuels than others.

Like Canada, Australia reportedly has enough known supplies of natural gas, which burns cleaner than petrol, to last for at least 300 years at current rates of use.

However, the price of LPG – which has traditionally been around half that of petrol – is increasing and will continue to do so as the federal government continues to ramp up its fuel excise tax, which came into effect for both compressed and liquid natural gas vehicle fuels for the first time last December.

It will continue to rise until it reaches 12.5 cents a litre in July 2015 and, while that is still well short of the 38.1 cents paid by petrol and diesel buyers, it comes on top of the government’s slashing of LPG installation rebates, which are not only being phased out by 2013 but capped at 25,000 units a year until then.

Sales of LPG vehicles remain historically low in Australia, despite the release of Ford’s new-generation Falcon EcoLPi range – which has failed to boost Falcon sales by a quarter, as Ford expected, even though it offers more performance, far lower CO2 emissions and only slightly higher consumption than equivalent petrol models.

Holden launched its new Commodore LPG range only last month, but last year only about 1600 LPG-powered passenger models were purchased (including just 81 by private individuals) – down from almost 5000 in 2010.

The Hyundai-Kia group offers a range of CNG-powered models in a number of countries and also sells the LPG-electric Forte Hybrid in Korea, but is yet to offer an LPG or hybrid-powered model in Australia.

Like the hybrid Forte, Kia’s Optima Hybrid has only been produced in left-hand drive to date, but Kia Australia says the latter is unlikely to come here regardless given the slow take-up of hybrids in Australia.

Dr Hahn said Kia’s first EV – the Ray, 2500 examples of which are currently being produced for government and corporate fleets in Korea – will become available to the public, at least in Korea.

“The plan, of course, is to sell it to the public after feedback from the fleets to learn if the customer is filling it up in a way that we expected,” he said.

Kia – like Hyundai – is also on target to produce its first road-going fuel cell vehicle (FCV) by 2015, but Mr Hahn says cost and refuelling infrastructure continue to remain major hurdles to public consumption.

“We are also working on fuel cell vehicles. The first demonstration vehicles are already running within the group – Kia as well as the sister brand.

“So we are now learning some experience with it and what I can state is it works – it works well – but currently we are not in the target regarding cost in production.

“It is more than just putting this kind of car to the market – you also need the infrastructure. What do you do with a fuel cell car if there is no filling station.”

Dr Hahn said the answer to sustainable mobility is to offer a range of energy-efficient technologies, culminating in fuel cell, which would not come at the expense of interim solutions including gas, electric and plug-in hybrid.

“We have one advantage we are quite a big group – we sell more than six million vehicles a year – that is the reason why we can show you series-hybrid solutions based on conventional engines, plus electric energy.

“In future you will also see a higher grade of hybrid in our company – including plug-in – but that does not mean we are not working on fuel cell. It is a kind of diversity that we fortunately can do due to the high amount of sales.”

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