Last month's Los Angeles Auto Show was essentially a roadmap for how automakers will meet increasingly stringent fuel economy standards more than a decade from now.
New regulations in 2016 require fleets to average 35.5 m.p.g., up from about 27.3 now.
But the real challenge is to meet a proposal that vehicles get 54.5 m.p.g. in 2025.
"The L.A. show is the first show since the Environmental Protection Agency set the standard," said Tom Apostolos, president of Ricardo America. An impressive mix of hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles and a surprising number of diesel-powered vehicles dominated the Los Angeles Convention Center floor. Even among new traditional gas-only cars, most weigh hundreds of pounds less than their predecessors and are outfitted with multi-gear transmissions and smaller engines.
These trends will be reinforced next month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Doubling the fuel economy of the nation's fleet will require a myriad of materials and technologies under continuous refinement.
"No single technology will achieve 54.5 m.p.g.," said Mark Kuhn, manager of Ricardo Strategic Consulting. "We won't see a lot of new technology in the next 10-15 years. Instead, it will be a rollout of existing technology."
Automakers are dabbling in it all. The competitive distinctions are found where each company places emphasis.
Ford is betting on EcoBoost: smaller direct-injection turbocharged gasoline engines to be offered in 15 models next year. Chrysler has adopted parent Fiat's multi-air technology to control intake valves.
Supplier Eaton has doubled its supercharger business since 2010 and expects to double it again in 2016, said Ed Lunder, product strategic manager. Turbochargers have been on a similar growth trajectory.
Supercharging, which was once regarded as a performance enhancer, has evolved into a fuel-efficiency solution, Lunder said. The technology allows carmakers to downsize engines and boost power and torque. The overall effect is to run the engine at a lower speed to improve efficiency as much as 15%.
Lunder sees more automakers using turbochargers for their efficiency at full throttle coupled with superchargers to eliminate turbo lag upon acceleration.
While most automakers acknowledge that gasoline engines are here to stay -- and more diesels are coming to the U.S. -- hybrids and electric vehicles will proliferate.
Ford has a growing portfolio, but John Viera, global director of sustainability, said plug-ins and electric vehicles are not meeting sales projections, partly because consumers don't understand the technology. Ford sold 172 Focus Electrics in November; 518 so far this year.
By 2020, electric vehicles will still be less than 2% of the market, growing to 5% in 2030 and 10% in 2040, said Shaun Mepham of Ricardo.
"I'm not sure we understand what the real demand is for electric vehicles," said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, especially when people are still hanging onto old vehicles.
But consumers understand hybrids. Toyota is on track to sell more than 210,000 of its three traditional Prius hybrid models this year. Ford sold more than 4,800 of its new C-Max hybrid in November. Mepham said hybrid sales will keep growing through 2030.
Chrysler has no hybrids, but is introducing the Fiat 500e, or electric vehicle.
GM also has eschewed regular hybrids in favor of its eAssist mild-hybrid system, Chevy Volt extended-range electric and plans for a Chevy Spark EV.
"I don't think we need more conventional hybrids in the fleet right now," said Reuss. "You can get fuel economy faster by reducing mass."
David Periam, Ricardo's chief engineer, said vehicles have gotten bigger and heavier for the past 30 years. But the trend can't continue if the industry is to meet future requirements. The consensus is new vehicles must cut, on average, 220 pounds from outgoing models, something the 2013 VW Golf and Range Rover accomplished, Periam said. The rule of thumb is a 10% weight reduction improves fuel economy 3%-4% -- more if the lighter vehicle needs a smaller engine, brakes and other components.
The Cadillac ATS is 200-300 pounds lighter than a BMW 3-Series, Reuss said. That is a new standard practice for GM.
While the industry works to reduce the cost of aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber, steel still represents 60% of the weight of an average vehicle. The traditional material remains dominant because it is strong and can be stamped economically into millions of parts, said Ron Krupitzer, vice president with the Steel Market Development Institute.
Steelmakers are producing stronger and lighter grades, but the looming corporate average fuel standards are daunting.
"We've not had as big a challenge as CAFE in our history," Krupitzer said. "We're breaking apart every system in the car to see what steel can do compared with its material competitors."
New high-strength steels have reduced weight by 20%-25%. A $6-million Department of Energy loan will be used to start a four-year research project next year into third-generation grades and welding techniques to achieve up to 35% weight reduction, said David Anderson, who is on the steel institute's technical panel.
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