More turbochargers, direct injection coming to China as plug-in interest drops

China seems to be hedging its bets on meeting stiffening emissions and fuel economy regulations, and addressing consumer demand for cleaner air. Electric vehicles remain part of the strategy, but their high cost, limited range and lack of infrastructure have kept sales at a slow pace. Hmm, that kind of sounds familiar, doesn't it?

As automakers are doing in the US, China-based manufacturers are exploring fuel-saving technologies that don't rely on plugging in, things like turbocharging and direct injection for gasoline and diesel engine powertrains. Chinese consumers are reticent about spending more on EVs, but they are paying extra for technology upgrades that improve fuel economy and driving experience.

Automotive supplier BorgWarner has seen its turbocharger sale double in China over the past three years. The company expects it to double again in the next three years, thanks to tougher fuel economy and emissions standards, and the fact that turbocharged vehicles are more fun to drive, according to BorgWarner China president Tom Tan. About 80 percent of turbochargers will be installed on engines between 1.4- and 2.0-liters, he added. Chinese government policy plays a role in turbocharger growth in small engines, since taxes are much higher on engines above 2.0L.

Direct injection technology is following the turbocharger trend. UK-based engineering consultancy, Ricardo, is seeing automakers clients requesting more direct injection, and expects that all gasoline-powered engines in China will include turbocharging and direct injection within 10 years.

Chinese automakers would like to be seen as technologically innovative, a central theme at last month's Shanghai Motor Show. Geely, for example, showed off its "self developed" turbocharged direct injection engine integrated with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Government subsidies have failed to incentivize consumers to buy battery-electric and hybrid-electric vehicles in China in huge numbers. Larger subsidies are expected for hybrids, including plug-in hybrids, in the next few months. The Chinese government wants 500,000 hybrids and EVs on the road by 2015 and five million by 2020, but Chinese consumers only purchased 11,375 EVs and plug-in hybrids last year.

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