Carmakers to Focus on Fuel-Saving Tools

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To meet the federal government’s new, higher fuel-efficiency plan for pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles, automakers expect to rely on a new onslaught of fuel-saving technologies.

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2005.

Jeffrey Runge, left, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta announced the proposals. (Perry C. Riddle / LAT)

“Over the past two decades, we’ve increased fuel economy by about 1.5% a year. But this [proposal] would require improvement of 2% to 2.2% a year and that’s a significant challenge,” said Reg Modlin, head of environmental and energy planning for Chrysler Group, the U.S. arm of DaimlerChrysler.

Years ago it was easier to improve gas mileage because engines were fairly basic with lots of room for improvement, he said. Now, virtually every passenger vehicle has fuel-injection and other computerized systems that make vehicles more fuel-efficient.

However, the Bush administration plan proposed in August is more likely to push the auto industry to apply fuel-saving technologies in the next generation of light trucks.

Those technologies would include: more hybrid gas-electric vehicles, six-speed automatic transmissions to squeeze out better gas mileage and air conditioners that run by electricity, rather than power from the gas engine, said Lindsay Brooke, advanced automotive technology analyst at CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Another possibility: enabling six- and eight-cylinder engines to shut down half their cylinders while cruising on the highway. Chrysler, General Motors Corp. and Honda Motor Co. already offer this feature on some vehicles.

Use of lightweight aluminum or composite plastics for fenders, pickup beds, hoods and doors also could increase, Brooke said.

And fuel-efficient diesel engines for light trucks could become a big item if automakers can meet the tough new federal and California diesel emissions requirements that take effect in 2007.

Most new diesel engines get 20% to 30% better fuel economy than gas-powered vehicles.

Still, all these changes will come at a price. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that meeting the new fuel economy rules would add about $275 to the cost of each truck, minivan and SUV sold in 2011.

Under the Bush administration’s plan, fuel economy for the class of vehicles known as “light trucks” would be based on size and broken into six categories, with smaller vehicles required to get the best gas mileage.

By 2011 that means the smallest light truck group — including the Jeep Wrangler and PT Cruiser — would have to average 28.4 miles per gallon, while big trucks, such as the Nissan Titan and Dodge Ram, would have a target of 21.3 mpg.

The safety administration is still collecting public comment. The final fuel standards are expected to be released in March.

The agency has “done a fair job of putting out a system that appears to be balanced,” said Chrysler’s Modlin.

Because the higher fuel standards treat each manufacturer separately — based on estimates of future light truck production and product mix through 2010 — the annual fuel economy average differs for each automaker’s fleet.

For example, sports car specialist Porsche — whose only SUV is a high-powered performance model called the Cayenne — has been assigned a 16.8 mpg target.

For U.S. automakers, heavily dependent on big SUVs and full-size pickups, the light truck mileage targets would range from 23.5 mpg for Ford Motor Co. to 24.2 mpg for DaimlerChrysler.

The plan would allow each automaker through 2010 to either stick with the current formula of a weighted fleet average, or adopt the new fuel standards. Beginning in 2011, all automakers would have to use the six size classes.

“Everyone will have to take a look at their current production plans and there probably will be some changes,” said Tom Stricker, head of Toyota Motor Corp.’s environmental regulatory affairs office in Washington.

But the variety of vehicles offered is more likely to be affected by real-world concerns such as the price of fuel than by regulatory demands, said GM spokesman Chris Pruess.

Sales of the biggest SUVs already have begun slipping, while sales of smaller SUVs built on car chassis are picking up, a move driven both by gas prices and a change in consumer tastes, analysts say.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are adamant that the safety administration has woefully underestimated the auto industry’s ability to improve gas mileage.

“All [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] is doing is asking them for a few minor tweaks,” complained David Friedman, chief researcher for the clean vehicles program of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

His group believes the auto industry could improve light truck fuel economy by 40% to 70% — to more than 35 miles per gallon on average from this year’s average of 21 mpg.