Detroit Auto Show: Greener Cars Are Shedding Pounds

The Fiscal Times

Automakers are painting Detroit green at this year’s North American International Auto Show, unveiling a collection of environmentally friendly new vehicles.

Experts say the trend is just beginning as the industry makes initial moves to comply with a government-mandated fuel economy revolution. "Fuel economy will be the focal point of most auto shows through the balance of the decade," says Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive.

Federal rules require automobile fleets to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, with an interim 35.5 mpg standard required by 2016. Car makers need significant lead time to develop a vehicle, so the fruits of their efforts to green the automotive fleet are now bearing fruit through a variety of technologies.

Virtually every new vehicle that's being unveiled by a manufacturer is more fuel efficient than the previous generation. The average fuel economy of all vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2013 was 24.8 mpg, up 3.9 mpg from 2008, the best increase ever, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute's Eco-Driving Index.

Focus on Gasoline-Powered Vehicles
Automakers previewing vehicles at the show this year are concentrating more on conventional and high-performance gasoline models than on those run on alternative fuel. That's because they've found ways to achieve significantly higher fuel economy numbers in gas vehicles, including lighter materials, halogen and LED lighting, an electrically driven power-steering pump, low rolling resistant tires, better aerodynamics -- even solar panels on a car's roof that allows other energy sources to vent hot air out of the vehicle.

Related: The High-Tech Future of Cars

Part of the reason the focus remains on gasoline models is that consumers are still not willing to embrace fundamentally different powertrains in large numbers, nor did the government expect them to when it set the 2025 standards. "They were convinced that the manufacturers could build more fuel efficient vehicles and meet those goals by improving gas engines, downsizing and bringing smaller vehicles into the fleet," says Bruce M. Belzowski, an automotive analyst at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Consumer response to zero-emitting vehicles that are powered by electricity through a battery has been tepid at best. Sales of all electric vehicles were only .08 percent of the market in 2011, .09 percent in 2012, and .32 percent at the end of 2013; they’re expected to comprise 3 percent of the market by 2025. "Traditionally powered vehicles get very good gas mileage, so it's hard to make the case economically for the electric vehicle," says Tom Libby, an automotive analyst at IHS Automotive.

The Vehicle Weight-Loss Plan
Improving the fuel efficiency of gasoline engines allows auto manufactures to achieve fuel economy at a lower cost, keeping the overall price of the vehicle down. As a result, Libby says that several manufacturers have re-shifted their priorities back to the traditional internal combustion engine, since they see lack of demand for electric vehicles.

Ford is focusing on every aspect of the gasoline-powered vehicle, from tires to climate control, to fuel efficiency gains, says Mazen Hammoud, the company's electrified powertrain systems chief engineer. Today, it unveiled a new F-150 -- the best-selling vehicle for the past 32 years -- that's 700 pounds lighter, the result of lightweight aluminum. It has plans to apply its fuel-efficient EcoBoost technology, which it pioneered in 2009, to 90 percent of its vehicles.

EcoBoost uses a downsized engine to reduce weight, along with turbochargers and direct injection that maintains the power of a larger engine. It now offers a smaller, V6 EcoBoost engine in its F150, an alternative to the V8, that's roughly 20 percent more fuel efficient. To date, 40 percent of customers have opted for the V6 EcoBoost engine. 

Ford, along with several other manufacturers, is also employing stop/start technology, which eliminates energy wasted when a car idles. It's being offered on the 2013 model year Ford Fusion and the company has plans to expand it to other vehicles, Hammoud said. Polk projects the technology will be used on 59 percent of gasoline engines by 2025.

Related: Why Americans Still Don’t Drive Electric Cars

The Chrysler 200 revealed at the Detroit show, which gets 13 percent better fuel economy than its predecessor. Chrysler Group expanded its rollout of a 9-speed front-wheel-drive planetary-gear automatic transmission. This system results in more fuel efficiency since the transmission itself weighs less than others with similar torque capacity and it operates the engine at the optimum efficiency point so the engine consumers less fuel.

For years, European automakers, including Audi and BMW, have been bringing more diesel engines to passenger cars, and now some domestic manufacturers are following suit. This past year, GM introduced the diesel Cruz, while Chrysler brought out a diesel Jeep Grand Cherokee. Within two months, Chrysler is also launching the Ram 1500 eco-diesel. "The phone's been ringing off the hook," for pre-orders of the RAM, says Mirceau Gradu, global vice president-powertrain for transmissions and drivelines for Chrysler Group. Once dirty, noisy and smelly, federal rules require that diesels burn cleaner. They get roughly a third better fuel economy than gas vehicles, but the comparably higher cost of the fuel can be a deterrent.

Electric vehicles
According to Polk, 17 percent of vehicles produced in North America by 2025 will be hybrids.  While the focus is on gas-powered vehicles, automakers haven’t entirely abandoned electric vehicles. Such as the Nissan Leaf, and those, like the Chevy Volt, that allow the gasoline engine to kick in after the battery's range expires. BMW showed its full electric i3 and plug-in hybrid i8 at the show, which will go on sale later this year, while Audi displayed its A3 e-tron.

Hydrogen power
Automakers continue to explore fuel cells, which are powered by hydrogen, a zero-emitting vehicle. Honda displayed the FCEV Concept. Fuel cells are exciting, since hydrogen is so easy to produce from natural gas, now a plentiful and inexpensive resource, says Robert Bienefelt, assistant vice president in environment and energy strategy for American Honda Motor Company. The challenge is the development of hydrogen fueling stations, but Bienenfeld is encouraged by California's authorization of $200 million a year over 10 years to develop 100 stations.

Mercedes-Benz has been leasing a fuel cell car; Hyundai's Sana Fe fuel cell vehicle, on display in Detroit, is expected to go on sale in California this year. Toyota also displayed its fuel cell sedan concept. Ford announced plans to go into production with a fuel cell vehicle towards the end of the decade. "It's no longer just a research project. We do take it seriously," says Mazen Hammoud, Ford’s electrified powertrain systems chief engineer.

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