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Can Japan save the petrol engine?
ARE petrol engines headed for extinction? The signs are ominous, with emissions standards tightening and cities around the world looking to ban fossil fuel cars altogether, some within the next decade.
Some carmakers have responded by embracing Electric Vehicle technology, setting themselves ambitious sales targets in the process, but not everyone is convinced that combustion power is about to meet a dead end.
Japan's Mazda, for example, forecasts that by 2035 only around 16 per cent of cars will either be battery powered or run on hydrogen fuel cells. That means it expects as much as 84 per cent of cars to still have some kind of combustion engine then.
That in turn suggests that refining the combustion engine could make a significant dent to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
"The combustion engine will help power the majority of vehicles globally for many years to come, and can make the biggest contribution to CO2 reduction," says Hidetoshi Kudo, the executive officer in charge of research and development, and product strategy at Mazda Motor Corporation.
Mazda says its upcoming Skyactiv engines, with an ignition technology inspired by diesel motors, will be the cleanest in the world. So much so, in fact, that they will be comparable to EVs in terms of carbon emissions on a wheel-to-well basis, which factors in the energy needed to build a car, generate electricity for charging and so on.
Meanwhile, Infiniti, a Hong Kong-headquartered luxury carmaker that belongs to Nissan of Japan, has rolled out its own breakthrough in the form of its VC-Turbo engine. The letters stand for "variable compression", a technology that took its engineers 20 years to perfect.
In 2016 the Automobile, Motor and Bicycle Association of Austria (ARBÖ) gave Infiniti the Grand Austrian Automobile Award in the "Environment" category, and said it set a new benchmark in terms of efficiency of next-generation combustion engines.
Varying the compression effectively lets engineers create two engines in one: an efficient one that runs like a diesel, and a high performance one with plenty of power.
"The beauty of variable compression is that the engine makes an intelligent choice between performance and efficiency, giving drivers the performance they want combined with the efficiency they need," said Roland Krueger, then the president of Infiniti Motor Company, when receiving the award in 2016. "Not only that, it is quieter and smoother."
While Mazda's Skyactiv engines haven't gone on sale here, Infiniti's VC-Turbo powers the QX50, a mid-size Sport Utility Vehicle.
Customers who test drive the engine for the first time notice the difference the technology makes right away, says Sebastian Tan, general manager, Infiniti at Wearnes Automotive. "They feel the punch and the sportiness. It's something different from what they've felt from the Infiniti cars that they have driven," he told The Business Times.
Mr Tan likens VC-Turbo technology to one that gives an engine the "two characters of a sprinter and a marathon runner".
Later this year, Nissan will launch yet another novel engine technology when the Serena e-Power enters the market here. Driven by a motor, the seven-seat car is effectively an EV, but uses a petrol engine to generate the electricity needed to keep it going. The system sidesteps the need for lengthy stops at charging stations, and suggests that combustion engines still have a role to play even in EVs.
Infiniti is working on its own e-Power cars, borrowing the technology that helped its parent create Japan's single bestselling car in 2018, in the form of the Nissan Note e-Power.
In two years' time, the luxury brand will launch its first electrified cars that either run on pure battery power or the petrol-based e-Power system, and expects half its sales around the world to come from such cars by 2025.
Wearnes' Mr Tan said it was "too early" to comment on the brand's electrified plans for Singapore. But developments like these suggest that Japanese carmakers see a clear role for petrol engines in tomorrow's cars. Technologies like VC-Turbo could make that future an exciting one.