Japanese automakers team up on engine r&d to take on Europeans

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TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japanese carmakers including Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. are collaborating to develop new technologies for internal combustion engines, with the aim of better competing against their European rivals in fuel-saving technologies.

The eight manufacturers are investing a total of about 500 million yen ($4.9 million), in addition to receiving a 500 million yen government subsidy, to set up an internal combustion engine research association, the automakers said.

The combined 1 billion yen will fund the group, which also includes universities, for the year to March 2015, with the goal of achieving a 30 percent improvement in the fuel efficiency of traditional gasoline and diesel engines by 2020.

Echoing pooled research and business initiatives by other Japanese companies in areas such as in semiconductors and flat-panel displays, the carmakers are teaming up to conduct basic research to cut costs as they find themselves spread too thinly over a wide range of technologies, said Keiji Ohtsu, head of Honda's research and development division.

"With gasoline-electric hybrid cars and fuel cell vehicles being introduced, the range of technologies that carmakers must develop is expanding, even though the number of researchers is not," said Ohtsu, who is the newly appointed head of the Research Association of Automotive Internal Combustion Engines (AICE).

Other automakers involved in the project are Nissan Motor Corp., Mazda Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Motors Corp., Daihatsu Motor Co., Suzuki Motor Corp. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., the maker of Subaru-brand vehicles.

European methods

The carmakers have learned from Europe's r&d methods, in which companies work closely with one another and with universities to save resources and costs -- helping give birth to popular technologies such as clean diesel, Ohtsu said.

In France for example, Renault and PSA/Peugeot-Citroen are working together with start-ups and universities on early-stage projects in areas such as autonomous driving, engine downsizing and alternative fuels, while in Germany a research network consisting of carmakers, engine and turbine manufactures and suppliers conducts joint research.

"In terms of technologies, we don't think we are losing against them. But in terms of the efficiency of how development is being done, we are lagging behind," Ohtsu said at a news conference.

AICE will concentrate on studying exhaust gas treatment from diesel engines, with a focus on catalysts that help cut toxic emissions of smog-causing nitrogen oxide and how to reduce soot, Ohtsu said.

The group is also aiming to boost the thermal efficiency of internal combustion engines -- or how well they convert the burning of fuel into motive power -- to 50 percent, he said, against a current rate of about 39 percent for gasoline engines and a little more than 40 percent for diesels.

The automakers will use the findings from the research to separately develop their own products over the coming years.

Hans Greimel contributed to this report

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