Balancing Fuel Economy, Safety and Desirability by 2025

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of automotive industry professionals, academics and lobbyists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who discussed how the automotive industry will achieve the government-mandated 54.5 miles per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard by 2025.

The May 9 event was hosted by MIT, presented by the New England Motor Press Assn. (NEMPA), and sponsored by Chrysler.

It was an important topic to think about now, because initial targets of 34.5 miles per gallon are just around the corner. The panelists at MIT agreed that the technology is available, but the car-buying public has to be willing to pay the price for it. Recently former GM executive Bob Lutz opined in the Detroit News that pushing to 54.5 miles per gallon could add $3,000 to $5,000 to the price of an automobile.

“That 54.5 mpg is an incredibly challenging number,” says Mike Stanton, CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, a trade association-lobbying group of 13 imported car manufacturers. “The great unknowns are how consumers will accept these vehicles, what technologies will emerge, and whether the government will help provide the infrastructure for advanced vehicles.”

But think about what the average price of a car was just 18 years ago, when I started writing about cars professionally. At that time, the average price of a new Accord was about $17,000. Today, it’s $31,000. I’ve never seen the price of a new car come down once in all that time.

I’ve also seen the average weight of a car expand significantly. Over the last 30 years, the Honda Accord, for example, has gained almost exactly a thousand pounds. Also, consider the idea that there’s some equipment today – built-in navigation, built-in DVD players, for example – that are being phased out or considered less desirable because people carry most of that technology with them on their phone or tablet, and don’t necessarily want that technology built into the car. That may help to offset the cost of lightweight materials and advanced technology.

Panelists also included Dave Leone, executive chief engineer of General Motors’ performance luxury cars. “We have a saying ‘Every gram, every engineer, every day,’ ” Leone said. “The 2014 Cadillac CTS, for example, will be 12 percent lighter but the body will be 40 percent stiffer thanks to high strength steel and other materials plus design changes to make frame components without curves or bends.”

Leone noted that while making a car lighter adds some expense to the production of a new car, it’s the technology of either extracting the most fuel economy out of a traditional internal combustion engine, or electric power that truly adds cost.

Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz, general manager of Volvo’s Monitoring & Concept Center, says the projected US CAFE numbers not only are feasible but also fit with “what we’ve been planning for the past 20 years.”

Powertrain advances have allowed Volvo to scale back from 23 powertrains across its line to just two—one diesel and one gasoline—that are adaptable to all planed vehicles with a variety of turbocharging and electrification options.

MIT professor Tomasz Wierzbicki, director of the university’s Impact and Crashworthiness Laboratory and associate Elham Sahrael PhD, are studying ways to protect the lithium-ion batteries in many hybrids and all-electric vehicles from “intrusion” in crashes.

“Their construction leaves them susceptible to internal damage when they’re damaged in a crash. You can get thermal runaway which results in gas, smoke and possible explosion,” he says, a problem Boeing faced with its Dreamliner battery packs.

The CAFÉ standards are due for a mid-term feasibility review in 2017-18, just after the number reaches 35.5 mpg.

“It’s a time to ask, ‘Did the government get it right?’ says Stanton of Global Automakers. “I think we’ll realize then that we have the technology but not necessarily the public will.”

Stanton also wonders if the industry will outpace the government with technology advances as it reduces mass and increases efficiency.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, safety was a tough sell,” he says. “Now with all the new systems out there, the industry is getting ahead of the government and is worried that some good systems might get regulated out of existence.”


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.