Monday July 7, 2008

Moving towards hybrid vehicles

By ELAINE ANG and Leong Hung Yee

WITH the recent hike in petrol and diesel prices, Malaysians can be expected to look forward to more fuel efficient, compact and innovative cars to be introduced in the near future.

The International Trade and Industry Ministry is said to be considering revising the National Automotive Policy to encourage local automotive players to develop hybrid vehicles.

The United Nations has defined a hybrid vehicle as a vehicle with at least two different energy convertors and different storage systems on board the vehicle for the purpose of vehicle propulsion.

The most current breed of hybrid vehicles use electric motors in addition to power generated by internal combustion engines.

Datuk Aishah Ahmad

Malaysian Automotive Association president Datuk Aishah Ahmad noted that more Malaysians would be interested to purchase hybrid vehicles if the Government introduced subsidies on the vehicles in the coming budget.

“With the recent fuel increase in the country, such vehicles will be more economical in terms of fuel consumption and there can be substantial fuel savings for them in the long run,” she said.

Unfortunately, Malaysia has yet to make much progress in terms of promoting hybrid cars.

Currently, the only hybrid car available locally is the Honda Civic Hybrid, which is powered by a 1.3-litre petrol engine and an electric motor.

The Government also has yet to consider allowing any company to bring in large quantities of hybrid cars. It was reported that only 20 approved permits have been issued to Premier Hybrid Cars Sdn Bhd, which has won rights to import and distribute hybrid cars in the country.

However, with the increasing price of fuel, car manufacturers will be more motivated to introduce hybrid or other alternative fuel cars.

UMW Toyota Motor Sdn Bhd executive director (strategic marketing group) Aminar Rashid Salleh hopes the Government would provide incentives to the industry to manufacture and distribute more fuel-efficient and environment friendly vehicles or Eco-vehicles, which would include hybrid vehicles.

“With the incentives, it may be more commercially viable for industry players including Toyota to introduce Hybrid or any other eco-vehicles to the public,” he said.

Toyota's line-up of eight hybrid models are the Toyota Prius, Estima, Alphard, Camry, Highlander and Lexus LS, GS and RX.

National carmaker Proton is considering fitting its Waja, Saga and Persona models with NGV (Natural Gas for Vehicles) kits by year-end.

Oriental-Hyundai Sdn Bhd, the distributor of locally assembled Hyundai models, have also installed about 200 units of NGV kits in Hyundai cars sold by its marketing arm Kah Bintang Auto Sdn Bhd.

Malaysia, however, has progressed by leaps and bounds in terms of smaller and more fuel-efficient cars especially via the country's second national carmaker Perusahaan Otomobil Kedua Sdn Bhd (Perodua).

After the hike in petrol price, compact cars have become even more popular, showing a surge in sales.

According to Perodua managing director Datuk Syed Hafiz Syed Abu Bakar, bookings for the ViVA shot up by 65% to 11,100 in June from an average of 6,700 units a month for the first five months of the year.

Bookings for the MyVi remained strong with 8,000 units monthly during the first half of the year.

“We believe the higher bookings for the ViVA were mainly due to the 40% hike in petrol price last month,” Syed Hafiz said.

This shift is already happening in the US, a market known for big cars. For the first time in its history, mid-sized cars Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla took the number one and two spots respectively in terms of sales in May simply because they were more fuel efficient than the bigger cars.

In Malaysia, the gradual rise in the cost of living over the last few years has also brought about similar trends.

Fuel efficient cars

Perodua has come a long way since the Kancil was first manufactured and sold. It has now become synonymous with compact and fuel efficient cars. According to Syed Hafiz Perodua's specialty will continue to be in developing fuel combustion engines that are fuel-efficient.

“There have been significant improvements in combustion engine technology and we see this technology remaining strong for many years to come.

Aminar Rashid

“We will continue to build affordable compacts and with the technology available we are confident, future models will be more fuel efficient than those in our current line-up,” he said.

However, he admits that given the correct combination of price, maintenance cost and infrastructure, Malaysians are ready to be given another option – hybrid cars.

Meanwhile, Toyota Motor Corp has also developed two types of fuel-efficient technology engines – the variable valve timing with intelligent (VVT-i) petrol engine and the common rail diesel engine (D-4D).

The engine can be found in most Toyota passenger cars such as the Camry, Corolla, Altis, Vios and multi-purpose vehicles. The advanced D-4D common rail turbo diesel engine can be found in the Toyota Hilux, Fortuner and other commercial vehicles.

Hybrid cars

Honda Malaysia has sold 14 units of the Civic Hybrid (as of June 2008) since its launch in August last year.

Honda Malaysia Sdn Bhd managing director and chief executive officer Atsushi Fujimoto said the company's intention in introducing the hybrid to the market was to educate and build awareness among Malaysians on environmental conservation and advance environmental friendly technologies, which were also fuel efficient.

At this moment, Fujimoto sees cost as the main consideration for the adoption of hybrid technology.

“We are exploring further innovation and technologies which would be able to reduce the cost of production. Ultimately, we aim to make the Hybrid affordable for the mass market,” he said, adding that an increase in the demand for the Hybrid would also subsequently lower costs.

Fujimoto believes that zero emission cars such as the electric vehicle (EV) and fuel cell vehicle (FCV) would revolutionise the global automobile industry in the future.

Atsushi Fujimoto

“However, it will be a long process because it takes time to prepare the infrastructure and to reduce production costs.

“We believe that for the next 10 years at least, the hybrid will serve as a transitional vehicle from conventional fossil fuel-based to zero emission vehicles,” he said.

Besides the hybrid technology, Honda is the first car manufacturer in the world to introduce the FCV. Last month, Honda began production of the new FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle in Japan.

Efficient dynamics

BMW Malaysia corporate affairs manager T. Vijayaratnam said the trend was for Malaysians to look at more fuel-efficient and hybrid cars.

“We have the technology and we are ready for it. When the demand is there and we get the opportunity we will bring these cars into the country,” he said.

Premium automaker BMW Group's EfficientDynamics strategy is the umbrella for all measures directed towards reduction in emissions and consumption at the group. The key modules can be divided into three timeframes – short, medium and long term.

According to Vijayaratnam, short term refers to the current technologies available on reduction of emissions and consumption.

“In the short term, we have the most fuel efficient engines and a system of other things to reduce consumption in our engines,” he said.

Syed Hafiz Abu Bakar

He added that BMW was looking at a hybrid solution in the medium term and planned to introduce a hybrid car next year.

“The sports activity coupe X6 hybrid would be a combination of diesel and electricity. The technology we get from diesel is fabulous.

“We are close to a ratio of 50:50 for diesel and petrol cars globally. But it is barely happening in Malaysia as the mindset is that diesel is dirty and used for buses and trucks. Diesel engines are actually far cleaner,” he said.

The long-term perspective envisages BMW continuing to expand its role as a leading player in the area of the hydrogen drive.

BMW launched the hydrogen car in 2006, which has been making rounds in the US and European countries.

“Ultimately we feel that hydrogen is the best way to go in the long term. About 100 of these cars are being used worldwide. There is no time frame as to when we will start selling them.

“It's not that we can't build the cars but the environment has to be ready for it,” Vijayaratnam said.

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