Fuel economy: It's supposed to be a feel-good term, conjuring up images of greener pastures, bluer skies and fewer trips to the gas pump.
These days, though, fuel economy is creating more hot air than good feelings. The U.S. Senate has signed a bill calling for dramatic boosts in vehicle fuel economy, environmental groups are crying for more stringent measures and automakers are digging in for a painful, public battle.
No one, it seems, is happy with the idea of greater fuel economy.
"People want it, but at what cost?" says David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research and a former professor of automotive engineering at the University of Michigan.
Indeed, cost is the crux of this contentious battle. Automakers say the Senate bill's measures will break them financially; environmental groups say they're lying.
That's why the battle over fuel economy could hinge, not on complex technological issues, but on the stickier matter of industry credibility. It may all boil down to whether the American public and its legislators believe there's an engine, a battery or a carburetor wrapped in oily rags on a basement shelf somewhere in Detroit that secretly enables vehicles to attain limitless fuel efficiency.
Automakers in Detroit swear it isn't so. There are no secrets, they say. No magic bullets. The ever-so-public target of 35 mpg by 2020, passed in a bill by the Senate in June, is completely unrealistic, they argue. Even if they pull all SUVs from the market, roll back pickup truck sales to 1975 levels and convert every remaining car, crossover and minivan into a hybrid, they claim they still couldn't reach 35 mpg by 2020.
Some consumers, however, aren't buying that. "They think we're stupid if they think we're going to buy that," says Bob Shull, deputy director of auto safety and regulatory policy for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.
If Senate and House activity serves as an accurate barometer, legislators don't believe it, either. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proclaimed in June the Senate bill "starts America on a path toward reducing our reliance on oil." And California Sen. Dianne Feinstein rejoiced to NPR saying, the bill "closed the SUV loophole."
Supporters of the bill look at the American auto industry's record of innovation and its history of adamant stances against fuel efficiency and they conclude the automakers just don't want to comply. They cite self-parking cars, tire pressure monitoring systems, talking dashboards and three-dimensional GPS systems and ask how the creators of such technologies could be so stubborn about boosting fuel economy. "This whole message of 'we can't do it' is unbelievable to most people," says Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency. "If you look at history, you see that automobile manufacturers have said they couldn't do seat belts, air bags and catalytic converters. When it comes to innovation, they said time and time again that they absolutely couldn't do it. They've said it would destroy production and take cars out of their fleets. And they've always been wrong."
The bill, however, has left engineers wondering how they'll raise their corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) levels from 27.5 to 35 mpg in just 12 years. Although they're willing and able to achieve higher fuel economies, they say the Senate bill doesn't provide sufficient lead time to allow them to redesign their vehicle lines and incorporate new technologies. Moreover, they say, it lacks a basic understanding of how the automotive market works.
"Many of the people who talk the loudest know the least," says Cole, who is widely considered to be the auto industry's most knowledgeable consultant. "They don't know what it is to design a product or to provide the features and reliability. They have no clue."
Hopes for the Future
For both sides, the only point of agreement is that automakers can do it.
"Physically, it can be done, but that's not the issue," Cole says. "Can it be done so you can be profitable and sustainable as a company? That's the question. And that can't be done."
To be sure, automakers say they're willing to comply with new CAFE regulations. They just don't want the regulations to be as "Draconian" as those described by the Senate bill or by a similar bill introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, which calls for them to reach 35 mpg by 2018. They're more open to the so-called "Hill-Terry" bill, which describes separate requirements for cars and trucks and calls on manufacturers to reach CAFE levels between 32 to 35 mpg by 2022. (As of this writing, no date has been set for a House vote.)
"Lead time is exceptionally important to auto manufacturers because of the cost involved in redesigning an automobile and re-tooling the plants," says Charles Territo of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group.
Under any requirements, automakers say new technology will be critical. They can't meet any of the proposed CAFE regulations simply by shuffling their vehicle lineups, they claim. Therefore, they need new technologies — ranging from diesel-burning engines and plug-in hybrids to body weight reduction, elimination of parasitic loads and employment of continuously variable transmissions. Automakers say there is no single technology that can lead them to the promised land of 35 mpg.
"It's not limited to powertrain," says Nick Cappa of Chrysler. "You have to go to all areas of the vehicle to gain as much fuel economy as you can, even if it's something tiny, like reducing the weight of a component by half a pound."
Chrysler, for example, recently launched a common axle program with Mercedes-Benz, which calls on engineers to employ different materials as a means of lowering friction and decreasing weight. Similarly, the company is studying the use of so-called "biomimetic" software that mimics nature during the structural steel design known as "body-in-white." By using the software to apply impact loads and standard roof-crush loads, the system finds more efficient load paths, enabling the body to shed weight through the use of high-strength steels in some areas and by eliminating material in others. Chrysler engineers expect the biomimetic software to cut vehicle weight by about 13 percent, which translates to approximately 130 lb on a typical body-in-white.
"When you take away weight from the body-in-white, you can take away weight from other components, as well," Cappa says. "This has the potential to help our vehicles shed a lot of weight."
Perhaps the greatest potential for improved fuel efficiency, however, lies in the development of lithium-ion batteries. With lithium-ion, automotive engineers expect to be able to launch a new breed of so-called plug-in hybrids, which offer the possibility of fuel efficiencies of more than 100 mpg, depending on how they're used. General Motors is working on Chevy Volt and Saturn Vue plug-in hybrids, while Chrysler has placed a small test fleet of Dodge Sprinter plug-ins on the street, where they are currently being used by The New York Times to deliver newspapers.
Automakers warn, however, the development cycles for such technologies are long. New model development takes five years; a new powertrain consumes seven. The bottom line: Automakers can't simply re-engineer their fleets in time for the giant fuel efficiency increase legislators are planning, they say.
"We have good technology," says Greg Martin, a GM spokesman. "So does Ford, Toyota and all the other automakers. But the fact is, we have to build cars that will sell to the market. And we have to meet safety regulations and test for reliability."
Much of the public, however, isn't buying the automakers position. "They can do this and they could do much more if they wanted to," says Shull of Public Citizen. "If there were really stringent fuel economy standards that they had to comply with, it would suddenly create the pressure for them to innovate."
Adds Cuttino, "I don't think that you can convince the American public that automakers can build a car that parks itself and yet they can't do better in fuel efficiency."
Automakers hope members of the U.S. House of Representatives don't buy the theory that the technology is ready and waiting to be incorporated into production vehicles. Most — including automakers from Asia and Europe — are lobbying Congressional representatives in an effort to get them to support the Hill-Terry bill and therefore give automakers more time and leeway in meeting new fuel-efficiency requirements.
Making legislators and the public believe, however, may be another matter. Automotive insiders admit the industry's credibility on such matters has been damaged over the years, largely because it has fought legislation too many times. "There's baggage," said one industry engineer who asked not to be named. "Seat belts and air bags and the battles with Ralph Nader — the bills from the past have come due and we're seeing that in the debate right now."
Cole of the Center for Automotive Research believes nothing good will be accomplished if the U.S. government focuses on regulations instead of technology development. "From my view, what the government should be doing is getting away from CAFE and making sure that they streamline the process of investing in other technologies," Cole says.
Clearly, automakers would prefer that scenario to one involving stricter CAFE regulations. Still, they say they'll attempt to meet the impending requirements under any circumstances.
"We've never paid a CAFE fine in our history," says GM Spokesman Martin. "We'll meet the CAFE standard, even if it kills us."
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