Cars and Trucks are in for a Fuel Efficient Makeover

But will they hold up to today’s on-the-road rigors?

By Barbara Cox


GMC’s Denali XT

Concept cars and a handful of hybrids aside, we’re still in for a wait. The cars of tomorrow could present significant improvements in fuel efficiency, however, if President Obama’s newly proposed Corporate Average Fuel Economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards become law. If finalized, the standards would apply to model year 2012 through 2016 passenger cars, light-duty trucks and SUVs, and require 39 mpg for passenger cars and 30 mpg for light trucks, or an average of 35.5 mpg/250 grams per mile of CO2 for the total fleet by 2016.

But will automakers be up to the challenge?

Work in progress

The Department of Transportation estimates these new standards would reduce 890 million metric tons of greenhouse gases and save approximately 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the model years covered, translating to significant health benefits and fuel savings for drivers.

Of course, technology doesn’t come without cost. The new standards would likely increase the price of the average car by $1,300, but Obama claims typical drivers should see a return within three years and save $2,800 over the life of the vehicle thanks to better gas mileage.

Model year 2011 standards have already been raised to a combined average of 27.3 mpg for passenger cars, light trucks and SUVs – which were previously exempt from the program – saving an estimated 887 million gallons of fuel over the lifetime of these vehicles, and reducing CO2 emissions by 8.3 million metric tons, according to the EPA.

The Dodge Ram 1500 will receive a hybrid powertrain in 2010.

Still, automotive experts remain split between two outlooks: those who say more fuel-efficient vehicles will boost vehicle sales, thus improving the economy and the automotive industry, and those who say cars and trucks will not only lose their unique appeal to buyers, but also the power to tow, haul and perform as in the past.

More importantly, safety remains an issue. Many experts question whether vehicles created under CAFE standards will be as safe as those we drive today. According to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report on the impact of CAFE standards, because the easiest way for manufacturers to increase vehicle economy is to decrease vehicle weight, increases to CAFE standards would likely have a negative impact on safety, leading to more highway fatalities. NAS suggested NHTSA investigate implementing a CAFE program based on the attributes of a vehicle, so separate standards for vehicles with similar attributes could exist.

Now, at Obama’s request, the EPA and NHTSA are working together to develop an attribute-based national program. NHTSA will write the regulation once the White House approves and finalizes the details.

“The new system will not be solely based on a corporate average as in the past,” says Rae Tyson, spokesman, NHTSA. “It will be based on vehicle size.” A program based on size, rather than a broad mpg target for various sized cars, trucks and SUVs, will allow the agencies to take safety into higher consideration when setting the new mpg goals.

On the horizon

Manufacturers have reacted positively thus far, applauding the president’s efforts to create a uniform national fuel efficiency program, rather than a multitude of state programs. And the Obama administration has awarded $8 billion in loans spread out over Ford, Nissan and Tessla Motors to develop advanced vehicle technologies.

Ford’s EcoBoost engine in action: Spent gases are pushed through the exhaust valves and then routed to the turbochargers for efficient conversion of exhaust gases into energy to drive the turbochargers.

At present, the EPA says automobiles represent 17 percent of all man-made CO2 in the United States. Automakers have responded by offering more than 50 technologies to reduce emissions, burn clean fuels and increase mileage, in addition to selling 130 models that achieve 30 mpg or greater on highway.

Since many of our readers drive trucks and SUVs, EW asked manufacturers what drivers should expect if the proposed standards become law. The responses center on several multi-pronged approaches. Here’s what’s next:

After receiving a $5.9 billion loan in June to transform its factories and produce 13 additional fuel-efficient models, Ford says it will move ahead with its electric vehicle lineup and EcoBoost engine technology. EcoBoost combines direct injection and turbo-charging for anywhere from 10 to 20 percent greater fuel efficiency and an up to 15 percent CO2 reduction versus a larger displacement engine.

“There isn’t a silver bullet solution for powertrain or engine technology,” Read says.

The first EcoBoost engines will appear on Ford’s Taurus Sho, Flex and the Lincoln MKS this year, with plans for an EcoBoost on its F-150 at a later date. And in 2010, Ford will introduce a battery-electric Transit Connect, as well as a battery-electric Focus in 2011 and next generation hybrid and plug-in hybrid in 2012.

GM has said it will reinvent itself to provide higher quality cars and trucks. Shown here, Denise Gray, director global battery system engineering, at the company’s recent battery lab opening.

Meanwhile, Ford plans to shift toward electric power steering, dual clutch and six-speed transmissions, battery management systems and vehicle weight reductions ranging from 250 to 750 pounds to increase fuel efficiency.

Like Ford, Nissan received a jump-start from the government in the form of $1.6 billion for retooling its Smyrna, Tennessee, factory to build advanced electric autos and an advanced battery manufacturing facility. The company plans to introduce battery electric vehicles in the United States and Japan in 2010, with introductions to the mass market in 2012.

Chrysler says it will consider smaller, more efficient and powerful engines for the future, while also determining ways to use direct-injection, turbo-charging and variable valve timing to its vehicles’ advantage.

Chrysler’s electric vehicle group, ENVI, will produce the company’s first electric vehicle in 2010, with additional electric vehicles and range-extended electric vehicles for both retail and fleet customers unveiled in 2011 through 2013. According to Nick Cappa, technology public relations spokesman for Chrysler, ENVI will focus primarily on bringing electric vehicles to market under the Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep brands.

The company will also launch the Dodge Ram 1500 Hybrid in 2010. “Vehicle electrification technology has developed to the point where we can integrate a hybrid system into half-ton pickups and smaller vehicles – some pure electric,” Cappa says.

GM continues to work with a number of advanced propulsion systems and alternative energy resources, including gasoline, diesel, biofuels, electricity and hydrogen fuel cells. Like Ford and Chrysler, GM will use variable valve timing, direct injection and six-speed transmissions to achieve better fuel economy.

But GM has remained most in the spotlight for its Chevy Volt. Scheduled to launch in 2010, the Volt incorporates a lithium-ion battery with a gasoline, range-extending engine, which powers a generator that delivers electricity when operating beyond the 40-mile battery range. Other vehicle possibilities include hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, hybrids and plug-in hybrids.

“Our vision is to reduce vehicle emissions to zero, while increasing fuel efficiency dramatically. We want to make personal mobility truly sustainable,” says Tom Read, GM Powertrain. “But there isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ solution for powertrain or engine technology.”

Rather, a blending of various powertrain and fuel technologies to reduce reliance on oil and lessen the automobile’s environmental impact is key to meet growing demand. “Our focus remains on the reinvention of the automobile,” Read says. EW

Trickled down through the decades

CAFE standards aren’t new. Congress introduced them in the 1970s in response to the Arab oil crisis as a way to lessen oil consumption. The program set a requirement for passenger cars to reach 27.5 mpg by 1985, but did not allow the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – which determines the standards – to restructure how the rules apply to manufacturers. For years the standards remained fairly unchanged, with the exception of slightly increased light truck standards.

In 2007, President Bush enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act requiring fuel efficiency increases during model years 2011 through 2020, with a final goal of 35 mpg in 2020 for all passenger and non-passenger vehicles. The new act was expected to reduce oil usage 20 percent by 2017.

The Obama Administration is now asking for a 5 percent increase per year in fuel economy for model years 2012 through 2016 – or a total mile per gallon increase of 30 percent.

“Vehicle electrification technology has developed to the point where we can integrate a hybrid system into half-ton pickups and smaller vehicles – some pure electric,” Cappa says.

“The debate over who sets CO2 and fuel economy standards for automobiles has been decided, but there is still more to talk about,” says Dave McCurdy, president and chief executive officer, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “We have the broad outlines of an agreement, but we will need to work closely with NHTSA, EPA and California in the rulemaking process to resolve multiple issues, trying to fit all the elements into one program.”

McCurdy says alliance members support measures to reduce carbon dioxide, such as low carbon fuels and advanced battery technology, but automakers cannot do it alone. “All industries will be called upon to reduce carbon emissions,” McCurdy says.

Everyday ways to improve fuel economy

• Avoid quick starts and stops

• Maintain steady speeds

• Remove any excess weight

• Perform routine maintenance

• Avoid idling

• Keep tires properly inflated

• Plan and combine trips