Describing itself as an automotive research and development company, China's Techrules is hell-bent on putting turbines into road-going vehicles. Its first concepts use an ultra-potent, turbine-charged series hybrid powertrain, promising supercar levels of performance and Prius-like fuel economy. While Techrules' claims necessitate a "believe it when we see it" response until the company actually develops something concrete and market-ready, the company does preview the possibility of a bold turbine future.
The idea of dropping a turbine into an automobile in place of a piston engine is nothing new or groundbreaking. In fact, automakers were experimenting with it fairly seriously way back in the 1950s and 60s, following the development of turbojet-powered aircraft just prior to the start of World War II. Many European and American manufacturers, including GM, Rover and, most famously, Chrysler followed those advances in air by working to bring turbine power to the highway. None of them had success in transforming the turbine's raw potential into a production car, however.
GM's Firebird concepts might have had more flash, but Chrysler's Turbine represented a more serious turbine-car project. In fact, the automaker remembers the Turbine as one of its most famous cars ever.
Chrysler made its turbine development program official in 1954, and from there, it worked on turbines for over 25 years, developing seven generations of prototype turbine engines. It ran the turbines on everything from jet fuel to perfume to prove their versatility.
Most of Chrysler's turbines ended up in its regular cars and trucks for research and testing, but in 1963, Chrysler introduced the Turbine, a dedicated experimental turbine model. It even ran a 50-Turbine car public trial, loaning the "Turbine Bronze" Carrozzeria Ghia-bodied cars to families in order to gain feedback.
The 1963-64 Turbine car construction and public trials represented the pinnacle of Chryslers' turbine program, and while Chrysler continued turbine research for close to two decades, it never fully overcame problems like high manufacturing costs and unimpressive fuel economy, abandoning turbines in 1981.
While the turbine showed some very clear advantages for automobile use in its heyday, such as mechanical simplicity, low weight and flexibility in fueling, it also had drawbacks, like acceleration lag and uninspiring fuel economy during normal everyday driving. It essentially proved more trouble and money than it was worth.
With the recent shift away from the longstanding "piston-driven internal combustion engines rule" mentality of the auto industry seeing automakers and startups of all sizes experimenting with alternative powertrain technologies, the turbine is getting a second look. It has found a (theoretical) niche running energy generation in the series hybrid layout, where its advantages can be capitalized on and its shortcomings minimized.
Techrules isn't the first company to think of the turbine series hybrid idea, either. Concepts like the Capstone CMT-380 and Jaguar C-X75 have tasked micro-turbines with generating range-extending electricity, and Wrightspeed has developed turbine-based range-extending powertrains for commercial trucks.
While micro-turbines seem well-suited for a range-extension role, we're still waiting for a production car to prove it. Jaguar's planned production C-X75 had dropped the micro-turbines of the concept even before it was cancelled.
Techrules thinks it'll be the one to bring turbine tech to a marketable car, and if it does, it could cement its name in automotive lure forever. That possibility remains a ways off, as the new outfit has merely announced its intentions and revealed two concept cars. It hopes to launch its first production car within the next few years.
Techrules calls its powertrain design "Turbine-Recharging Electric Vehicle" (TREV), explaining that the system relies on a single micro-turbine shaft-connected to a generator to recharge the 20 kWh, 720V lithium-manganese-oxide battery pack when it runs out of juice.
"Because turbines have always been a very inefficient way to convert chemical energy into useful wheel-turning mechanical energy, only a few have tried to use a turbine in the powertrain system, and none have ever succeeded commercially," Techrules Chief Technology Officer Matthew Jin explained in introducing the concept last month. "But, with electric vehicles, an electric motor is used to drive the wheels, which effectively frees the combustion engine to exclusively convert chemical energy into mechanical energy and finally into electric energy."
Techrules estimates that its micro-turbine can work about 50 percent more efficiently in a range-extending capacity than a piston engine. That number is helped along by a proprietary hybrid air/magnet bearing technology that cuts frictional losses, allowing the micro-turbine (and shaft-secured generator) to operate at 96,000 rpm. The system develops 36 kW, sending 30 kW to the battery and devoting the remaining 6 kW to powering auxiliary equipment like the inverters. With help from a "smart battery management system," the battery charges in an estimated 40 minutes.
We like the sounds of Techrules' TREV technology, but its numbers are difficult to take seriously from a startup we hadn't even heard of when the ball dropped on New Year's. Its supercar concept has 1,030 bhp (768 kW) and 6,300 lb-ft (8,600 Nm). Internal estimates suggest the car will tackle the 0-62 mph (100 km/h) in 2.5 seconds, then go on to travel up to a total of 1,243 miles (2,000 km) on 80 liters (21 gal) of aviation kerosene. Top speed: 217 mph (350 km/h).
And then there's the crazy-ridiculous "0.18L/100 km (1,306 US mpg, 1,569 imperial mpg)" figure that's been making headlines. That figure is "under plug-in operation," which we translate to "staying within the 93-mile (150-km) all-electric range, plugging in every night and using virtually no liquid fuel."
When the TREV system is relied upon to actively charge the battery, fuel economy experiences a precipitous fall to an estimated 49 US mpg (4.8L/100km). That's still damn good for a supercar, making us wonder why Techrules even bothers with the 0.18L/100km tomfoolery, which has undoubtedly increased everyone's already robust skepticism, making the car sound like the work of a science fiction writer. The acceleration capability of a Bugatti Veyron with fuel economy close to that of a Toyota Prius is certainly tough to swallow without some salt, but we at least want to believe that TREV technology could, theoretically, make it possible – or come close.
Techrules hopes to install its TREV technology in a limited-production supercar before turning its attention to high-volume B and C segment turbine-charged hybrids. It's provided two looks at what that supercar might look like, with both concepts sharing similar structural underpinnings and estimated specs. The AT96 (AT = 'Aviation Turbine') is a more track-oriented car powered by fuels like aviation kerosene, diesel and gasoline, while the tamer, road-oriented GT96 (Gas Turbine) runs on gaseous fuels like natural gas or biogas.
The AT96 is clearly the star of the show, so we'll focus on it, but you can apply the features and specs to both the AT96 and GT96 (or neither if you believe that Techrules is completely full of it). The car relies on a total of six electric traction motors – one at each front wheel and two at each rear wheel – to put out the aforementioned 1,030 hp and 6,300 lb-ft. Techrules explains that it uses two small rear motors at each rear wheel instead of a single large motor for packaging efficiency and simpler mounting.
The AT96 is built atop a carbon fiber monocoque with a T-battery-accommodating central spine that mimics the look of a transmission tunnel in a conventional car. The micro-turbine/generator and rear motors are contained within the rear sub-frame, giving the car a mid-engine feel. The carbon fiber skin atop that structure and the 220-lb (100-kg) TREV system (micro-turbine, generator, inverters, air pumps and fuel pumps) help keep the curb weight down to 3,042 lb (1,380 kg).
Techrules has taken a pretty standard mid-engine supercar silhouette and dressed it up with some interesting, albeit still raw, styling points – claw-like front fenders surrounding the angry, dual-strip eyes, hovering rear fenders, and an outlandishly extreme rear aerodynamics combo of massive wing and huge diffuser. The car looks every bit as aggressively disgruntled as a 1,030-hp, turbine-charged Chinese hyper-hybrid trying to prove itself should.
The GT96, on the other hand, falls in a much safer styling category. While the general shape is the same, everything that makes the AT96 an ill-tempered, uncaged animal is stripped away. The headlights have been toned down; the hood and face are about as plain and featureless as possible; and outside of the plummeting rear fender design, the sides aren't anything to remember. The only real interesting styling is at the rear, where the top-mounted exhaust, diffuser and taillights give the car a little personality – and even this area feels rushed and under-designed.
We'd say Techrules should have just stuck with the AT96 at its Geneva Motor Show world debut, even if its plans call for toning it down into a more GT96-like build before production. Two concept cars from a veritable nobody added to the "flash over substance feel" of the whole presentation, and Techrules could have held our attention just fine with the AT.
Techrules began testing a prototype version of the AT96 in February at the UK's Silverstone race circuit, ahead of its Geneva show debut. It plans to continue testing and development in conjunction with Italian and British partners, with hopes of launching a production-ready low-volume supercar on the global market in two to three years.
While Techrules is based in Beijing, it has its mind on Europe. It announced this week that it has started looking for a European production facility, a search process it hopes to conclude by year-end. And while it tells us it has no plans to attend this month's Beijing Motor Show, it will be back in Geneva next year.
"We will return to Geneva next year to show the progress we have made with the technology, including an update on the performance testing we will undertake in the coming year at the Nürburgring Nordschleife," says Chairman William Jin.
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