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C.A.R. Report On Fuel Technologies


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By Thom Cannell and Allene Stark
The Auto Channel
Detroit Bureau

Detroit June 10, 2010; Perhaps you, like we at The Auto Channel, love cars, trucks and anything that offers mobility on wheels. Yes, bicycles, motorcycles, wheelchairs, scooters, and unicycles are included but we are talking about cars and their future. Recently the National Academy of Science delivered a 400 page study that attempts to predict how the next 15 years of automotive technology will unfold, including technologies not covered in a similar 2002 report. The investigators talked to all the key players; suppliers, car makers, and governmental units. They took things apart to understand costs, they made informed guesses when no one would divulge proprietary plans.

To the surprise of nobody who knows anything about cars that customers want and can afford, conventional gasoline engines with spark plugs will continue to rule the upcoming decade, and longer.

We’ll see more diesels, more hybrids, no real fuel cell vehicles, and limited numbers of EVs (electric only vehicles). This does not imply stagnation in the industry, quiet the contrary. Recent changes in Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations (2010) and more in 2016 will challenge every car maker to build affordable vehicles that customers want to buy.

What the Academy thinks will happen is that familiar spark ignited gasoline engines will be highly adapted to specific market segments. You know, inline-four cylinder engines powering subcompact Honda Fit and Fiat 500, the same or upgraded turbocharged inline four cylinder engines for compact Fiesta and Chevrolet Cruze, and a curious mix of high technology turbocharged direct injected I-4 and V-6 engines for mainstream Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Buick Regal and others. Globally the emerging markets will see one, two, and three-cylinder engines, some with direct injection and turbocharging.

What it means is the more pricy and larger your vehicle, the more technology it will have under the hood. Engines will increasingly use cylinder deactivation like that found on Honda, GM, and Chrysler vehicles today. Direct injection of fuel into the combustion chamber, once a diesel engine technology, will become common in most gasoline engine vehicles as it offers more power and better emissions. The ability to change intake and exhaust valve opening and closings will become common. Toyota calls it VVTi, Honda says VTEC, Ford calls it Ti-VCT (twin independent variable camshaft timing), and BMW calls it VANOS.

All the wild tech, engines with no cams—valves operated by compressed air or electric solenoids are unlikely, as are engines with the ability to vary their compression ratio or HCCI or Homogenous Charge Compression Engines (look that one up, it’s hideously complex) just cost too much at this time.

Behind the engine expect more and more cars and trucks to have six speed transmissions or CVT (constant velocity transmissions) like those used in most Nissan vehicles and Ford hybrids. No, what we will see are small, powerful engines that have torque like a diesel and the fuel economy of a small engine while cruising, engines that, from behind the wheel, feel large and powerful. Interestingly, it is precisely what SAAB engineers predicted in 1987.

Let’s tackle the politically charged issue of electric vehicles. Flatly, without continued government subsidies they are not viable and cannot be competitively priced at this time or the next 15 years. That said, as the far future will surely include electric power or hydrogen fuel cell power, we have to start somewhere and sometime.

What is stopping EVs is the same problem as last time (anyone remember the EV1?), battery costs. Though we have modern lithium-ion batteries and really huge chemical companies constantly improving their competing blends of battery chemistry, without a cost reduction breakthrough of at least 50%, battery powered vehicles are best as your Porsche-replacement second car, or as pricey city cars.

In fact the panelists expect that for a PHEV, a partial hybrid electric vehicle like Volt or Insight or Prius, the incremental cost (cost over a comparative IC engined vehicle) in 2025 will remain $5900 and the panel do not anticipate such a cost breakthrough. And did we mention that, for pure electric vehicles like Nissan’s Leaf, 200 miles remains the Academy’s best case practical limit before a recharge (and we won’t address charging infrastructure, private or public).

What about diesel power, the engines that sip fuel and emit low amounts of carbon, albeit with higher nitrogen oxides. The Academy says diesel has potential for more than 35% improvement in fuel economy over the next 15 years. Diesel engines will, in their opinion, continue to have a relatively high price but their fuel consumption improvements will (as always) apply to all driving cycles and vehicle uses, like towing and hauling heavy loads or many passengers. Like their IC engine counterparts, continuous advancements and engine downsizing can maintain diesel’s relative advantage, though costs are expected to remain premium.

Regardless of the technology under the hood, the Academy expects improvement in aerodynamics and low rolling resistance tires to offer cheap and easy improvements in fuel economy. Changing to 6-7-8 speed automatics and direct sequential gearboxes are not cheap, though both transmissions offer 6-9% fuel economy improvements—at a $210-$600 cost over 4-speed transmissions. So, despite the cost you will have more gears under your control; CVTs are expected to remain niche products.

What else is in the future, beginning perhaps 3-5 years from today (or tomorrow if you’re buying a Ford Fiesta or Chevrolet Cruze)? Expect EPAS, or electric power assisted steering to replace familiar conventional hydraulic power steering. It saves energy. Electric powered air conditioning (HVAC) can save even more energy, but as the EPA doesn’t run AC during its testing, nobody wants to spend the bucks even though improved HVAC can return 3.4% fuel economy improvements.

Making cars lighter, a target of everyone but those who mandate new technology, can provide big fuel economy savings, but only if the entire vehicle is redesigned to take advantage of things like high strength and ultrahigh strength steel or aluminum or even carbon fiber. Expect those kinds of huge changes only at new model rollouts.

Some final notes. We need to shift to a different way of thinking about fuel consumption. Our familiar MPG must be replaced by gallons per mile or at least appear on the window sticker. Why? GPM (we think that it should be GPM/100 miles as in Europe’s L/100km) more accurately depicts your out-of-pocket costs, or what you pay for what you get. Think it’s crazy? Which of these is a better deal: making a car that gets 50 amazing mpg instead of only 35 mpg, or a truck that gets a paltry 20 mpg instead of 10? At only 10,000 miles per year driven, the car saves 86 mpg and the truck — wait for it - 500 gallons! If you drive 20,000 miles per year the later will save you about $3,000.

Also, we need the EPA to include real things in their testing, like including air conditioning in drive cycle testing and include stop-start systems in near-future testing protocol to bring this very inexpensive and fuel saving technology to the US.

Today, nobody has the edge on technology. Ford is challenging Toyota in hybrids and diesel engine technology is no longer a German exclusive. Styling and design are internationally distributed across shared computer networks even as engineering gets sliced and diced over the internet. The barriers to improving fuel consumption are costs, not technology. According to the Academy's report, technologies are multiplicative and car makers will drill down deep enough to achieve necessary economy at appropriate price points.