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Vehicles with 48-volt systems poised to thrive despite EV hype
Yang Jian | 2019/5/10

SHANGHAI -- Electric vehicle sales are exploding, hundreds of EV startups have emerged and the Chinese government is goading automakers to ramp up EV output with a carbon credit program.

Yet, the green vehicles that will first populate the world¡¯s largest auto market in the foreseeable future are not EVs, but those with cost-effective technology anchored by 48-volt systems.

In a preview of things to come, the technology found in 48-volt systems was prominently displayed by several major global suppliers last month at the Shanghai auto show. 

Valeo is the first global supplier to build 48-volt systems in China. The French company estimates vehicles fitted with such systems will constitute 17 percent of new vehicles sold in China annually by 2023, Francois Marion, Valeo¡¯s China president, told  Automotive News China  at the show. 

Valeo, which started producing 48-volt systems locally in 2017, plans to churn out the systems for up to 5 million vehicles in China by the end of 2023, Marion said.  

Regulatory pressure 
The main factor driving the application of 48-volt systems is China¡¯s tougher fuel economy and emission control standards.

Beijing requires automakers to cut average fleet fuel consumption to 5 liters per 100 kilometers (47 mpg) in 2020 from 6 liters (39 mpg) in 2016. By 2025, automakers must further reduce fuel consumption to 4 liters per 100 kilometers (58.8 mpg).

And 48-volt systems have proved the best solution to comply with the regulatory requirements. 

By applying a combination of fuel-saving technologies such as stop-start systems, mild hybrids and e-turbochargers, 48-volt systems allow carmakers to improve fuel economy by 10 to 20 percent, according to suppliers. 

They are also cost-effective. Such systems allow automakers to improve existing powertrains at a moderate cost, rather than develop costly gasoline-electric hybrid engines or battery-powered EVs.

Most of a vehicle¡¯s electrical components, such as headlights, radio, HVAC system, window motors, windshield wipers and even the electric power steering, still operate on 12-volts. The 48-volt system powers the components that require the extra electricity.

The cost advantage of vehicles with 48-volt systems over EVs will become more prominent going forward, said Jianmin Gu, Valeo¡¯s chief technology officer. 

After cutting subsidies for EVs by more than 50 percent in March, Beijing is set to wind down the incentive program entirely by year end.

¡°That will make 48-volt system even more cost competitive,¡± Gu noted. 

¡°Bridging technology¡±
Worldwide, the auto industry is transitioning from conventional vehicles to EVs.

But automakers cannot switch product portfolios from traditional vehicles in a short period to EVs because of high costs and a lack of sufficient battery charging infrastructure, Rolf Breidenbach, CEO of German supplier Hella, cautioned during a media briefing at the Shanghai auto show.

In addition to time, automakers need transitional technologies to complete the transformation of their products, Breidenbach noted.

¡°Because the 48-volt solutions make traditional cars with combustion engines much more efficient, we see them as a kind of a bridging technology,¡± he said.

Like Valeo¡¯s Marion, Breidenbach also foresees tremendous potential demand for 48-volt systems in China.

¡°Our customers are investing significantly in this technology and they are demanding a lot of products. Therefore, over the next 10 years we¡¯ll see a huge increase of business opportunities for 48-Volt solutions,¡± Breidenbach said. 

In addition to Valeo and Hella, other major global suppliers including Continental, Bosch and Delphi are introducing 48-volt systems in China.

That likely means, despite Beijing¡¯s push for vehicle electrification, the green vehicles one is more likely to see on Chinese roads in a few years will be vehicles with 48-volt systems, rather than battery-powered EVs. 

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