Is there potential for powertrain electrification in Russia

Automotive World speaks to GAZ Group on the potential for electric vehicles in Russia

With the ever-increasing need to reduce carbon emissions and increase fuel economy, automotive companies around the world are making an effort to find viable solutions. Alternatives to gasoline and diesel fuelled engines are highlighted by many as the enabler to meet global regulations, and with the Russian market crash starting to show signs of repair, is there future potential for an alternative powertrain in Russia?

Speaking at the Powertrain plant «Avtodiesel» in Yaroslavl, Russia, Konstantin Rukhani, Director, Powertrain Division, GAZ Group, explained to Automotive World that as it stands there is no real demand for electric powertrains for anything other than buses in the Russian market.

f «Our colleagues from the bus division of GAZ Group have developed and built a purely electric bus, and have rented this bus to the city of Moscow for test-drive. However, I don’t know about any other efforts to create commercial electric vehicles in Russia aside from the prototyping of an electric GAZelle LCV,» he said.

CNG a «top priority»

Rukhani highlighted that in Russia, the focus for GAZ Group is more on compressed natural gas (CNG), and suggests there is a very remote future EVs in Russia. Nevertheless, GAZ’s Powertrain division is making initial approaches to better understand the viability of EV buses and commercial vehicles (CVs) in Russia by consulting with leading engineers, researchers and developers of electric powertrains.

«We try to study what the demand growth curve will be, and we are closely following the development trends in Europe at present,» he said, adding: «Based on that research, we have come to the decision that for the time being the most prospective line of development is for CNG powered engines for the full and medium term. This is the top priority focus for us moving forward.  And we have developed CNG engine for buses and trucks.»

With the rest of Europe seeing great potential for EVs as a realistic mass-market alternative, is there any aspiration at all to develop EVs for Russia in any form? Rukhani is not convinced, but advised that the idea has not been ruled out completely: «Our research really is a preliminary familiarisation of the topic, it is very general. We are not expecting or forecasting any serious demand for that product in Russia for any observable future. But again, we are not ruling this out.»

More to be done before going electric

Manfred Eibeck, Chief Executive of Russian Machines, the holding company of GAZ Group, gave his thoughts on the viability for Russian EVs in both passenger and commercial vehicle guise.

«We have a prototype electric GAZelle, just to understand how it could work. We have an electric bus as well, as there is probably more potential for buses. However, the emission standard today is Euro 4 in Russia, so you can do a lot with the standard before you need to go to electric,» he explained.

Eibeck suggested that the factor of range is a significant issue that makes powertrain electrification an unlikely success in Russia, as «distances are long and traffic jams are long, so you do not want to be stranded.» Moscow has a network of buses that are powered by overhead cables and travel along set routes every day. He believes that there may be potential to change these city buses to either buses without overhead cables with fully-electric engines, or CNG: «Here it would make sense, and we are discussing programmes on the urban side with other cities,» he told Automotive World at the Russian Machines head office in Moscow.

The priority for the Russian automotive industry is to first recover vehicle sales and production volumes back to pre-crisis levels, but it is clear that there is an interest in CNG vehicles in future.