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Friday, April 06, 2007

Bob's $5,000

Bob Lutz recently said that dramatically increasing fuel economy standards could add $5,000 to the price of the average new car.

He's right. This isn't just auto industry doom-saying.

The efficiency of internal combustion engines has plateaued. Every relatively cheap trick that could be used is being used. This includes variable valve timing, high efficiency lubricants, lighter weight materials, higher precision machining, and complex sensor networks and computer controls. And these advancements have added hundreds if not thousands of dollars to the cost of your engine*.

Major leaps forward require large increases in complexity. For example, diesel engines are more expensive because they must be built to withstand high pressures, and need turbochargers for driveability. Hybrid electric drivetrains keep all of the complexity of the existing gas engine, and add in parallel batteries, electric motors, regenerative braking, etc. Even with high-volume production, adding more stuff will always cost more money.

So how can automakers meet high fuel economy standards, without raising the prices dramatically?

The most obvious way is to down-size engines. As recently as the early 1990's, the average family car was packing something like 150HP. Today, a mid-size car with 150HP is considered lame, and 200HP+ is the norm. 0-60 times have likewise been dropping, with 8 second minivans becoming commonplace. But, what will the public say, and especially the automotive press, when the V6 becomes an expensive option, and the I-4 becomes the standard engine?

The other way, which Lutz mentioned, is to pursue ethanol fueled vehicles. Ignoring the problems of producing enough ethanol, for a moment, it is true that E85 uses less fossil fuel because it is by definition 85% ethanol. And by tuning engines specifically to take advantage of ethanol's high knock resistance, by increasing the compression ratio, automakers can overcome the performance hit from the reduced energy content of E85. An example of this technology is Saab's Biopower powertrain.

There is no free lunch. Drastically higher fuel economy will require consumer and taxpayer pain, and compromises. There isn't a 100mpg carburetor sitting on a basement shelf, gathering dust, somewhere in Auburn Hills, Dearborn, or Detroit.

*Ever have to replace an O2 sensor or a secondary air pump? Ouch!


Anonymous said...

The car industry in the States has always whined about the impossibility of improving fuel economy, and fought CAFE legislation tooth and nail. The Japanese and Europeans have led the way, and they will continue to lead as long as North American engineers have the defeatist attitude that you promulgate.

Many of the techniques adopted by Toyota in the Prius, for example a lighter weight chassis/body, could be adopted by North American manufacturers. All that is lacking is the will to do it.

The Auto Prophet said...

It is not just whining, buddy. We are squeezed between a government that doesn't have the balls to raise fuel taxes (as is in Europe and Asia) to control consumption, and a buying public that wants fuel economy for free.

CAFE should be scrapped, because it hides the regulation from the customer, and puts all the pressure on the automakers.

Americans want large cars. This is a fact. Americans want cheap cars. The Prius is mid-sized at best, ugly, doesn't handle well.

Have you noticed, BTW, that the Prius is not exactly a hot commodity any more? That Toyota is actually putting incentives on them?

Anonymous said...

Hey, check this out : The president has no "scientific" background in his education. Just public policy. I work in the auto industry as well and we are going to face an uphill challenge in dealing with emissions and fuel economy in an equitable manner. The president of Southwest Airlines is on a board that is pushing for better fuel economy in cars. I don't think he realizes how much his industry contributes to fuel consumption and the emmissions associated with airplanes, especially when they are flown in the evening and act as the perfect heat insulator. The coal industry is "naturally" keeping quiet. In my opinion, we all need to find ways to improve fuel economy and emissions and the auto industry is doing its best. The only thing good about regulation is that all manufactures will have to comply. We will see or buy a Ferrari that is required to get 30 MPG?

Geotpf said...

"Have you noticed, BTW, that the Prius is not exactly a hot commodity any more? That Toyota is actually putting incentives on them?"

Have you noticed that the Prius had it's best sales month ever in March? Have you noticed it sold 19,156 units? Have you noticed that that was an increase of 133.2% over the previous March? Have you noticed you don't actually know what you are talking about?

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for some time, and I think Detroit just isn't physically able to afford the costs of meeting these mpg goals in their current financial states.

Where's the carbon fiber? Where are the clean(er) diesels? What's so bad about 150-175 hp and getting to 60 mph in 9-10 seconds?

The problem with fuel consumption? I see it every morning. I'm in a sea of idiots in full size trucks - big 3/4 ton crew cabs - 4 door suv's - and the like every morning, commuting a few miles to work.

Attitudes have to change. People have to change. People have to realize that no, it's not appropriate to drive these 10 mpg vehicles as commuters or daily drivers.

This comes from cheap gas, and automakers that keep pushing these vehicles on an increasingly dumbed-down and selfish public.

Maybe Bob's right. Maybe you're right. In that case, the oil can't run out fast enough.

Autoankauf said...

"Many of the techniques adopted by Toyota in the Prius, for example a lighter weight chassis/body, could be adopted by North American manufacturers. All that is lacking is the will to do it." That is true.. problity

Anonymous said...

As an engineer myself, I'm quite dubious of your claims. Working in the auto industry as an engineer doesn't necessarily qualify you as a subject matter expert on mileage or CAFE standards or future locomotive technologies or for that matter, of thermodynamics.

Throttling the Big Three on efficiency will drive innovation. Unfortunately, likely not from the Big Three. Unfortunately, your industry is one of the most lackluster at innovation. That includes your foreign competitors. GM has spent over $100 billion in research over the last quarter decade and for that we get .... what? A Chevy Aveo with lower MPG ratings than a Chevette of 1984. Look it up on the government CAFE web site. $100 billion sent a man to the moon and created entire new industries and technologies with the Apollo program. Yes, inflation makes it apples to oranges but....

Innovation will happen in transportation because its now out of your hands. It's in the hands of the world's scientists and entrepreneurs. You may incorporate the technology or with new advances in manufacturing, you may actually see small volume niche players eating your lunch as the landscape of innovation could easily create.

By the way, CAFE standards in Japan and Europe are 2x what they are in the US and China is following suit. Better quit whining and start getting ingenious. Seems like they can sell cars in all three markets for substantially less than the average selling price in the US. Your $5000 claim is meritless. He was talking about America's stringent diesel emissions. Innovation will make that a nonstarter as well just as when Honda embarrassed the Big Three in the 1970s when they said they couldn't meet the emission standards and Honda ended up doing it without a catalytic converter.

Sorry buddy. You need to go back to engineering school. Hey, if you are going to blog, be factual, be honest and expect negative feedback when you are wrong.