News Column

V8 Engines to Become Rare Under New Fuel Economy Standards

Aug 29, 2012

Brent Snavely

V8 Engines

Imagine it's 2025.

Gas prices are less than $4 a gallon because Americans drive in vehicles that get twice the m.p.g.

Ranchers tool around in hybrid pickups or trucks powered by compressed natural gas.

Cars plug in at charging stations, others run on diesel, and four-cylinder engines with eight or nine-speed transmissions are commonplace.

Gas-guzzling SUVs with V8s are like cassette tapes, compact discs and telephones with cords -- dinosaurs from a bygone era.

New aggressive m.p.g. standards set Tuesday by the Obama administration could make this a reality.

What might be more surprising is most automakers that do business in the U.S. have embraced it, signing on to the new 54.5 m.p.g. fleet average, as long as it's reviewed again in 2017.

The requirement will spur unprecedented innovation and could create 30,000 jobs by 2025, government officials said Tuesday, which could be a boon for Detroit.

To get there, the industry must spend up to $136 billion, according to a Department of Transportation official, who insisted the savings at the pump will outweigh higher costs at the dealership.

"Everything is on the table," Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said Tuesday. "We are struggling with some big choices we need to make."

Automakers must deploy significantly new technologies and must change the way cars are designed, Marchionne said.

Chrysler will still be able to build vehicles like minivans and Ram trucks, he said, but cars like Dodge Chargers and Challengers with big supercharged Hemi V8 engines will become as "rare as white flies."

The automotive industry along with the UAW, environmental groups and the state of California generally support the new standards, which were a signature goal of President Barack Obama when he came into office. But the degree of enthusiasm ranges from overjoyed to wary.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has opposed the standards, and his campaign on Tuesday called them extreme and said they would drive up the price of new cars. Any savings at the pump would be wiped out by rising costs of cars, the campaign said.

"This is a very ambitious, aggressive fuel economy program," said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "It's important to point out at this point that compliance is based on what consumers buy -- not the models that automakers put in showrooms."

But it may not be as unattainable as it looks. In the arcane world of government regulations, the rules don't mean that cars and trucks will average 54.5 m.p.g. in 13 years. It's actually closer to 40 m.p.g. in real-world driving.

Ten out of the 12 automotive manufacturers the Alliance represents -- including General Motors, Ford and Chrysler -- support the new standards, Bergquist said. Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, which have invested more in diesels than hybrids, are opposed.

That auto industry's support comes with a big caveat: That the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. EPA both honor commitments to conduct a review of the program and available technology to meet it in 2017.

"We want to be sure there is a rigorous mid-term review," Bergquist said.

Meanwhile, the National Automobile Dealers Association warned that the cost to develop the new technology could force automakers to charge nearly $3,000 more per vehicle by 2025.

"This increase shuts almost 7 million people out of the new car market entirely and prevents many millions more from being able to afford new vehicles," Bill Underriner, chairman of NADA, said in a statement.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the savings by American consumers over the life of new cars will more than make up for the cost increases.

"Everyone wins when we reduce fuel use and carbon emissions," he said.

Adoption of the new standards will save American families more than $1.7 trillion in fuel costs, resulting in an average fuel savings of more than $8,000 by 2025 over the lifetime of the vehicle, he said.

Typically, the automotive industry has resisted aggressive fuel economy mandates.

But last year, in the wake of the Obama administration's aid to Chrysler and General Motors during their bankruptcy reorganizations, UAW President Bob King helped bridge the gap between environmental groups and the automotive industry and the government.

"These new standards will help propel the auto industry forward by giving American families long-term relief from volatile fuel prices," King said in a statement.

Michelle Robinson, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicles Program, called the new standards a "watershed moment."

"Twenty years from now we'll be looking back on this as the day we chose innovation over stagnation," Robinson said.

Source: (c)2012 the Detroit Free Press. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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