Munro warned that smaller, lighter vehicles could also compromise crashworthiness. "Cars are not going to have the ability to perform in a crash the way they do now," he said. "Today's cars are about as good as we'll ever see. But when you change the materials and make the vehicles smaller, something has to give."
Crashworthiness would not be affected if the auto industry moved to a heavy diet of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric vehicles, Munro said. Vehicles such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf already offer superior crash safety, while already earning miles-per-gallon-equivalent ratings in excess of 90 mpg-e. Still, pure electrics and plug-in hybrids would raise costs for consumers, he said.
Automakers have, of course, traditionally resisted all government-led efforts to boost fuel economy, ever since CAFE regulations were first introduced in 1978. During that time, standards have risen from 18.0 mpg for passenger cars in 1978 to 35.5 mpg for combined (trucks and cars) in 2016. The next step is the current proposal (still being debated) of 54.5 mpg by 2025, which calls for the biggest fuel efficiency boost to date.
Munro contends that unforeseen technology developments could have a profound effect on the industry's ultimate ability to reach the 2025 targets. Improvements in EV batteries or hydrogen fuel cells are being worked on, and unexpected innovations in other areas can't be ruled out, he said. "There are lots of things that could happen," he said. "And if one of them suddenly does, then you could have a game changer."
Rob, it's fair to say that David Cole, chairman of The Center for Automotive Research and former head of the automotive engineering program at the University of Michigan, agrees with you. Here's what he said in a 2011 article: "Once you get past 35 or 40 mpg, the savings for the consumer are very small, and the costs to acheive those savings become very high. If the costs get too high and the savings get too small, it could actually diminish sales."
The article goes on to say: "Cole argues that if prices climb too high, consumers will start to defer the purchase of new vehicles, resulting in a negative impact on the U.S. economy. He calls it the 'Cuban-ization' of the U.S. automotive market. His organization has done studies showing that it could cause the loss of 200,000 jobs because consumers would be buying used cars instead of new ones."
When greater fuel efficiency comes up, the first response from the industry is often that we'll end up with unsafe cars that cost more.
There isn't a lack of innovation that could lead up to higher fuel efficiency. There's a lack of will power to give up the status quo. I agree that it has to be consumer led. We're already moving towards smaller cars and alternative transportation in the US. I credit the rise of popularity in cycling for this. Commuting on two wheels surrounded by cars and SUVs makes you very aware of the impact of large vehicles and traffic.
Chuck, your article implies there may be some significant cost increases on the way to 54.5MPG. It will be interesting to see how this affects the consumer. The car buyer may ultimately be more concerned about the sticker price than crash considerations.
Yes, naperlou, consumers' tastes change quickly, but that's not really much different from any other industry. Nobody even has a clue what the next big thing is in half the industries out there. (Phones / Computers being the most obvious examples at the moment). It's one thing, though, for consumers to accept tradeoffs in price, safety, size, whatever. It's another thing to say that you "can't" have what you want not because your wants are substantially different from everybody elses, but because the government in mandating where engineering money is spent.
Jack, I agree with you that this should be consumer led. Let's look at the history a little. The reality is that we, in the US, have more disposable income than almost anyone. Our gasoline is also cheaper than any developed country. When I lived in Europe, about ten years ago, gas (petrol) was at, or above, the level it is now in the US in nominal dollar terms. The cars were a lot smaller and there were many more diesels.
Actually, the case of a car company, Chrysler, is instructive in this discussion. Chrysler has, at least twice, been bailed out by the government. At other times, Chrysler was the most profitable car company in the world. They tend to hit extremes. If you recall, this latest time the issue was gasoline prices. Just before the price of gasoline went way up, Chrysler had re-introduced the Hemi engine. Everyone bought one. Chrysler, by the way, has never had a really succesdful small car. They are great at designing and building the mid-range and up type of vehicle. Well, just as they got ramped up with everything hemi, the bottom fell out o that market. The problem with consumer sentiment is that it changes so fast. On the other hand, designing and building a new model of automobile takes longer.
I think it will be easy to meet the standards. The trend, as I have written on this site before, is to make engines of the same displacement more powerful. I have a car with a 3.4L engine that produces 250HP. The newer 3.5L and 3.6L engines put out 300HP to 320HP. This is completely unnecessary. The car companies could easily put out a 3L engine that puts out 250HP. That would be plenty. The only ones who will be upset will be the auto press.
I like the way you point out that auto makers are exploring multiple ways to hit the 54.5 MPG milestone. I think there is a danger to being so fixated on the alternative power train technology and the challenges around EV batteries that the focus is off the other, very tangible ways these targets can be achieved. Ann (and Chuck) have done a great job reporting on the innovations around materials that are driving innovation in this area. The point in this piece about the car's interior being a good area for innovation and improvement is a good one.
I am still a believer in the building a better mousetrap school of design. If consumers really want something they will drive innovation by purchasing the vehicles with only the highest MPG's. The less efficient ones would fall by the wayside since demand would dry up and automakers would have no payback on them. That's not to say the the goverment should not encourage future development. The issue is demanding the development when it cannot be assumed that we can get there. Most engineers have been involved during their careers in projects that sounded great the start but after hitting techincal or financial brick walls, the project was intelligently cancelled to prevent further loss. If the government does need to encourage a paricular development it could do so by offering an award (like the DARPA Challenge or the private X-Prise). The key word is "encourage" rather than "mandate".
The end may not yet be near, but recent statements by two of the world’s biggest automakers point to the fact that the industry has begun to plan for a dramatic decline in vehicles that are powered solely by internal combustion engines.
At the recent Autodesk Accelerate event in Boston, the director of product development for a niche hypercar firm replied "no, no, no" to three answers he got for what makes a car go faster. What was the right response?
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