After 800 miles, you’ll still have gas.
Or at least you should, if automakers manage to more than double their corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, up from the approximately 25 miles per gallon that vehicles average today.
In 2012, the Obama administration announced vehicle fuel-efficiency standards requiring that the U.S. auto fleet, including cars and light trucks, average 54.5 mpg by model year 2025.
While the standards affect automakers directly, meeting the requirements will rely heavily on automotive suppliers and researchers, all of which are racing towards the deadlines with smarter powertrains, electrified engine hybrids, lighter materials, more advanced transmissions and more efficient tires.
“Most OEMs have models in the pipeline for the next five years, which means they have five years to really have a solution by 2025,” said Dr. Robert Prucka, an assistant professor with Clemson University’s Department of Automotive Engineering. “They’re scrambling really hard, and they have to improve around 4 percent a year” to meet the deadline, he said.
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
The 2025 CAFE standards won’t require every vehicle rolling off the line to have 54.4 miles to the gallon, however, as this number is simply the average requirement and individual standards vary across different vehicles depending on their footprint. Subcompact cars will be required to average 58.4 mpg, while large trucks are required to average 30.2 mpg.
Not only must automakers focus on fuel economy, they have to ensure the final product is affordable and marketable to consumers, all while meeting safety standards. As a result, research development cycles are shorter and OEMs are more open to trying technologies, said Greg Schroeder, assistant director and senior research engineer for the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“There’s a lot of technologies that are coming to the marketplace much more quickly than it has in the past,” said Schroeder, who works in the manufacturing, engineering and technology group. “You’re seeing what in the past would have been an incremental adoption of technology to more and more pushing the envelope.”
In contrast to the last 10 years, however, the push is on a broader range of engine types, said Dr. Zoran Filipi, chairman of Clemson’s automotive engineering department and executive director of the Carroll A. Campbell Graduate Engineering Center.
“We can do it today, but maybe your car might cost $50,000 instead of $25,000,” said Filipi, who said affordability is as much a factor as simply better technology. As a result, Filipi said the industry is experiencing a renaissance of “traditional” internal combustion engines and diesel engines, which can be less expensive solutions to heightened regulation in the short term.
“There was some hope … to have a much larger number of electric vehicles on the road by 2015, or even sooner, but unfortunately there’s this stubborn issue that’s preventing that from happening, and that’s cost,” he said. “At the end of the day, these technologies have to be affordable.”
But even minor gains are hard won, said Schroeder, as no one vehicle component can be expected to make up as much fuel economy as the new standards require. “I think everyone in the industry realizes that a greater amount of collaboration is needed in order to achieve what needs to be achieved in the next couple of years,” he said.
“Obviously the transmission can’t do 100 percent of whatever the final vehicle is. We’re a percentage of the achievable fuel efficiency,” said ZF Transmissions North America Marketing Communications Senior Manager Bryan Johnson, who said the German company produces eight- and nine-speed automatic transmissions that can be 6 percent more efficient than the market average, depending on the benchmark.
With Europe as the company’s largest market, ZF already focuses on fuel economy, but regulation “provides the opportunity to create new technology and new ways of doing things,” he said. “It makes you evolve and change your products to meet your demand.”
Tires’ rolling resistance, for example, can represent 20 percent of fuel use, said Michelin North America Senior Technical Marketing Manager Ron Margadonna. Materials research is critical to retaining energy lost to heat in tires, he said, but other important components include the overall mass and molded shapes.
“The game is going at a faster pace, but … we’ve been at this rolling resistance game for 20 years,” he said.
At Clemson, Prucka’s team is hyper-focused on optimizing algorithms that could result in 1 to 2 percent fuel economy gains, a significant achievement, but one that is only one step towards the goal.
“From an engineering perspective it was exciting, but I think I was a little set back, just thinking how are we even going to do that,” he said, noting that Toyota’s 51-mpg Prius only just makes the cut. “Just knowing that that vehicle, which is one of the most popular and very efficient, it still might just barely meet the deadline, tells you how much the industry needs to change.”