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Fuel-efficient cars: Achieving 54.5 mpg by 2025

New standards for fuel efficiency, and innovations in materials and technology, are helping automakers and consumers embrace a new generation of cars.

By Casey Williams

Special to Tribune Newspapers

November 10, 2012

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There are two ways to import less oil: Pump more or reduce use. Since 1975, when the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were set by the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency, the goal has been to do at least as much of the latter as the former. When standards were being implemented, averages were below 13-mpg. By law, they ramped up to 27.5-mpg in 1985, leading to the downsized aero rides we drive today. Bigger changes were recently passed.

Reading the standard

We are already in the middle of a ramp-up to 35.5-mpg by 2016, but the joint agencies have written a new standard that raises fuel economy from 35.5- to 54.5-mpg in the 2017-2025 period. During that time, the U.S. is expected to save 4 billion barrels of oil.

"CAFE is tech-forcing, but one of few tools the U.S. government has had over the last couple of decades to actively push forward improved fuel economy," said John O'Dell, a senior editor and green car editor for Edmunds. "It is a settlement that was negotiated amongst a number or warring parties. The majority of automakers said they could live with it and there will be a mid-term review at the 5-year mark. Overall, it is not a bad deal."

The regulations are expected to increase vehicle prices by $1,800, but save $8,000 in fuel over the life of the vehicle. Automakers will achieve the new standards through a combination of electrification, advanced traditional powertrains, lighter weight and improved aerodynamics.

Electric rides

To meet the standards, most our future cars will be electrified in some way. This will range from "lightly hybridized" GM mid-size sedans with eAssist to full-out electrics like the Nissan Leaf, Smart ForTwo, and Tesla Model S. Thankfully, we will not have to give up driving enjoyment for the sake of economy.

For example, the Tesla runs 0-60 mph in 4.4 seconds, touches 130 mph, and has up to a 300-mile range. It costs $50,000-100,000 depending on options, but demonstrates what is possible. The Chevy Volt extended-range electric goes 40 miles per charge, and then continues with a gasoline engine providing power. You can drive it coast-to-coast. Prices start under $40,000 before incentives. Cadillac will offer the sporty Volt-based ELR next year. These cars, and plug-in versions of the Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion, and Honda Accord already achieve around 100-mpg equivalent — double the 2025 standard.

Even a $24,000 Toyota Prius achieves 50 mpg; Ford's new $25,000 C-Max hybrid crossover delivers 47 mpg city/hwy. The 2013 Lincoln MKZ luxury hybrid posts 45-mpg city/hwy. Every major automaker will offer electrics and hybrids as part of its formula for meeting the CAFE standards, but that's not the entire story.

Advanced powertrains

There is still much efficiency to be squeezed out of internal combustion engines. Newer powertrains will improve economy without dramatically affecting drivers.

"We want the transition to be transparent to the driver," said Mircea Gradu, V.P. and Head of Transmission, Powertrain and Driveline Engineering, Chrysler Group. "New eight- and nine-speed transmissions offer opportunities to operate the engine at an optimum efficiency point, letting the engine run at lower rpms to save fuel. We achieved 31 mpg in the Chrysler 300 and 25 mpg in the 2013 Ram 1500. Customers want capability and safety; we developed all-wheel-drive systems that disconnect at the front axle and transfer case to get the fuel economy of a true two-wheel-drive vehicle — up to 5 percent gain."

Turbocharged and four-cylinder engines are being employed to achieve fuel economy while maintaining performance. The family-sized Ford Fusion, Chevy Malibu, Buick Regal, Hyundai Sonata, and Kia Optima only offer four-cylinders. The full-size Ford Taurus and '14 Chevy Impala offer turbo-fours, as will the next Mustang. Truck buyers have also embraced turbocharged engines, making the EcoBOOST V6 in the Ford F-150 more popular than the comparable V8. GM is expected to embrace a similar strategy with its re-designed 2014 pickups.

Automakers are also developing start/stop systems that allow engines to shut down at rest, and then automatically re-start when the driver lifts from brake to throttle. According to Edmunds, this improves fuel economy 5-10-MPG.

Throwing weight to the wind

Automakers can improve efficiency without changing the powertrain through lighter weight and aerodynamics. As cars become more streamlined, designers and engineers will work together to make sure they do not turn into jelly beans. Many hours are spent in wind tunnels to maximize the benefit of lighter materials.

"Cars will be lighter through alloys, composites, and aluminum that will replace steel," said O'Dell. "The materials are more expensive, but the theory is fuel economy will offset increased cost of purchasing the vehicles. These cars won't be intrinsically less safe because many lightweight materials are stronger than the materials they replace."

As an example, Land Rover cut over 700 lbs. from its Range Rover by using aluminum and composites. Ford will cut a similar amount from its next F-150 pickups. BMW, GM, and others are working on mass production of carbon fiber — a material usually reserved for high-end sports cars. GM is also developing high-strength magnesium sheet metal that is 75 percent lighter than steel, 33 percent lighter than aluminum, and should improve fuel economy 9-12 percent. As automakers develop lower-cost ways to produce these materials, they will allow for efficient and safe rides.

Getting on with it

Unlike in the '70s, automakers did not put up much of a fight against regulations.

"A convergence of NHTSA, EPA, and CARB, the fuel economy standards are a huge requirement," continued Gradu. "We have a plan to achieve these numbers and are working closely with government. There is acceptance from our side; we have means to achieve them."

You may fear the 54.5-MPG standard will ruin our cars, leaving us to ride in underpowered bore-machines. Ask yourself this, "Would I really want to drive the behemoths of the early '70s?" I doubt it. An array of new technology will converge to deliver next-generation cars that will be as exciting as anything to come before … while consuming less oil.