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Fuel Economy Still Hot

Fuel Economy Still Hot

John McElroy
Host, Autoline Detroit

McElroy has spent virtually his entire career observing the automotive industry. A much sought-after speaker on automotive topics, he hosts the television program "Autoline Detroit," a weekly discussion program featuring top automotive executives. He also does daily radio broadcasts from the CBS affiliate in Detroit.

What's the hottest product trend you see in the auto industry today?

The trend still is trying to get better fuel economy in cars without forcing the customer to give up choice and performance. It's a long-term goal. Chrysler is implementing cylinder deactivation on the Hemi. The technology enables the engine to switch from V8 to V4, improving fuel economy about 2 mpg in the city and 4 to 5 mpg on the highway. Honda is also putting the technology into the Odyssey minivan. Actually, Cadillac had a version of the technology in the 1980s, letting the engine go from V8 to V6, then to V4. But the computing power wasn't fast enough and the public hated it. Another fuel-economy initiative is stop/start engine technology. The engine turns off when you're ready to stop, then automatically starts again. Belt-alternator starter technology will make stop/start more widespread. You get rid of the starter and get a beefed-up alternator. Diesels are part of the fuel-economy trend, too, as are hybrids.

How much outsourcing can automakers do before they simply become marketers rather than manufacturers?

The basic things car companies have to do are define the product and what the brand stands for, manage the programs to produce the product, market the brand, and sell and service. They could outsource everything else. Sales and service are already outsourced through dealers. But, before they outsource anything, they should ask themselves whether anyone can do the job better than they can. If the answer is that some can, outsource it. If no, then don't outsource.

What happened to the Super Car?

That was the product of the Partnership for a Next-Generation Vehicle (PNGV), a project started by the Clinton Administration to develop a Taurus-like car that would get 80 mpg. The result was hybrid diesels, and they got close to 80 mpg. The automakers delivered them to the government, but they couldn't build the cars at an affordable price.

What more can automakers do, reasonably, to improve safety?

Passive safety has run its course. We need more active safety systems that prevent an accident. Night vision is one example. Also, look for sensors to detect an imminent collision, including systems to take control of the car away from the driver to avoid accidents. There are steps they can take to improve pedestrian safety, such as raising hoods and designing in some give to soften the blow if a pedestrian gets hit and lands on his head on the hood. Airbags outside the car are a possibility, too. But the biggest thing that can be done for safety is to improve driving skills. We've done nothing with the driver. A few years ago, Car and Driver magazine rigged a tire in an Explorer so they could remotely blow out the tire on the test track. At 50 mph, the tire blew but nothing happened. At 60 mph, they blew it again and nothing happened. Same at 70 mph. Then, they asked the driver to slam on the brakes with his hands off the wheel. Nothing. The conclusion was that drivers are probably swerving and taking other actions that could cause a flip.

McElroy can be reached at [email protected]

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