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5 Ways Nissan Will Deliver Higher MPGs in a Pre-Electric World

Nissan hybrid system

Nissan Motor’s (s NSANY) road to a more fuel-efficient fleet will be paved with five technologies coming out this year. Today the automaker, whose electric LEAF sedan is slated to hit the U.S. market in December, popped the hood on five technologies set for deployment in the 2010 fiscal year, offering a glimpse of some of the oft-overlooked tools for reducing vehicle emissions long before electric cars go mainstream.

Nissan’s plans for this year call for the launch of a hybrid system with an electronically controlled clutch and a lithium-ion battery supplied by AESC (the automaker’s joint venture with NEC Corp.), which is scheduled to roll out in the Infiniti M toward the end of 2010. Nissan also plans to deploy a new 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder, turbocharged direct injection gas engine in the second half of this fiscal year, starting out in the Nissan Juke model.

In addition, Nissan says it has developed a pair of technologies for models rolling out this month in Japan, including the Nissan March (aka Micra) powertrain, which according to Nissan has a continuously variable transmission that’s 10 percent smaller and 13 percent lighter than previous designs. For the latest automatic transmission X-Trail model, meanwhile, the automaker has developed a “clean diesel” engine. Last month Nissan rolled out in Japan in the Juke model a 1.5-liter engine with dual injectors, which Nissan says will boost fuel economy by 4 percent compared to its conventional engines in the same class.

Nissan is readying to launch these technologies at a time when a growing number of startups hope to sell or license fuel-saving, emission-reducing tech to the world’s largest automakers. Achates Power, for example, is working on a high-efficiency two-stroke diesel engine that’s supposed to deliver higher power density and lower emissions than currently available options. Transonic Combustion is developing what’s called a supercritical fuel injection system, which involves heating fuel to a “supercritical” state before injecting it into the combustion chamber, allowing it to combust without the need for a spark. Transonic Combustion’s system is meant to minimize waste heat, and it uses proprietary software to adjust injection based on engine load.

Whether and how much car companies end up turning to young ventures for this tech remains to be seen, but startups face long odds to beat out established suppliers and automakers’ internal development programs when it comes to these types of systems and components.

As John Viera, Director of Sustainable Business Strategies for Ford Motor (s F) told me in an interview recently, a technology that promises to deliver fuel savings of at least 1 MPG is “large enough to get our attention,” but it will be a rare case when the automaker bets on an unproven supplier. With software and apps built on the automaker’s Sync platform (developed by Microsoft (s MSFT)) however, it’s a different ball game. According to Viera, “Software — that’s where you’ll see outsiders come in.”

Image courtesy of Nissan Motor Co.

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