To make up for volatile sales at home, car builders are keeping a close eye on emerging markets. The problem, as an automotive analyst puts it, is that ‘you can’t sell the same car in China as you do in Germany.’ One reason for this is that cars are not consuming the same type of fuel around the world.
Adapting cars to local demand is costly and big companies are spending millions on research centres built for no other purpose than to adjust car models to local tastes and conditions: GM has its Pan Asia Technical Automotive Centre in Shanghai, China and Hyundai its Design Centre in Frankfurt, Germany. Particularly, adjusting to indigenous fuel-type offers sometimes means rebuilding an entire engine from scratch.
‘Fuel in China has sometimes a higher sulphur content, which can be very damaging for cars,’ tells Hervé Richard, the coordinator of IQ Fuel, a research project funded by the EUREKA-EURIPIDES technology cluster. ‘On the other hand the environmentally friendly biofuels used massively in some western countries contain more water than conventional oil, which is also a source of degradation for the engine.’
‘The IQ fuel sensor and engine control system are able to analyse the specificities of a particular fuel mix and to automatically adapt the functioning of the engine,’ adds Hervé Richard, who works at the Advanced Development Unit of Continental, a department keeping the car parts manufacturer at the technological edge by creating the products that will radically transform our cars in the future.
Different fuels, one engine
The advanced development unit has played a key role in the past in the engineering of flex-fuel vehicles for the Brazilian market, allowing drivers to run their vehicle either on traditional fuel or on locally made ethanol, a derivative of sugar cane. The technology is based on a sensor able to monitor the percentage of bio-diesel and ethanol in a motor’s injection system and to automatically adapt the engine through an embedded control unit. Most cars in the country can be propelled by both conventional fuel and ethanol, last month flex-fuel cars represented 86% of sales in Brazil.
Continental’s experience with flex-fuel is at the foundation of the IQ FUEL project, ‘but this time we wanted to go even further by optimising the functionalities of the engine for any type of fuel’ says Richard. This approach is not only adapted to the large variety of fuels in use across the world, but also to the diffusion of bio-fuels. ‘By equipping a car with IQ fuel technology, you would be able to sell the same in China as in Germany,’ explains Richard.
IQ fuel will not be introduced in models before 2015, but the automotive industry is already looking forward to a product that may well change the state of play in a manufacturing sector that has been strongly shaken by the financial crisis.