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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. 

Vehicles with 48-volt systems poised to thrive despite EV hype