54.5 Miles Per Gallon – 2025 fuel efficiency standard

Question markReally?

Ain’t gonna happen. And you might as well grab some coffee – this is going to take awhile.

On July 29, 2011, President Obama announced an agreement with 13 automakers to achieve a corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) of 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025. All of the automotive corporate executives stood around President Obama and looked as if they supported it. They could do this because everyone knows that the standard will be relaxed before then. And why do we think this? Oh… any number of reasons. Let’s take a look at some of them.

From 1975 through 2005 corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) moved from 13.1 miles per gallon to 21 miles per gallon. Over 30 years. A more detailed report can be found within the Environmental Protection Agency itself. The sad part about the annual graph plotted in the first reference is that CAFE was actually highest in 1987-1988, peaking at 22.1 miles per gallon.

A closer examination reveals this 68.7% increase in CAFE occurred in a 12 year time frame. Significant. One might say amazingly so. But then again, the starting point was a pretty dismal 13.1 miles per gallon. Not too hard to make a significant improvement from that level. More amazingly, the Model T – produced from 1908 through 1927 – achieved fuel economy ratings from 13 miles per gallon to 21 miles per gallon. One might point to the different nature of the automobile from 1908 through 2005. The point remains – a focus on fuel economy over the next century remained almost nonexistent.

From 1988 through 2006, CAFE had fallen back to 21 miles per gallon – a loss of 5%. Had vehicles become less efficient? Quite the contrary. It is just that the efficiencies occurred in areas other than fuel economy.

0-to-60 miles per hour acceleration times during the same time frame fell from over 14 seconds to under 10. But let’s take a closer look at this also. Vehicle weight dropped dramatically from over 4,000 pounds in 1975 to about 3,200 pounds by 1981, a 20% reduction in weight. This would account for a significant amount of the fuel economy gain, as well as the improvement in 0-to-60 time.

From 1981, weight increased inexorably back to 4,000 pounds by 2005. Yet the 0-to-60 continued to improve from roughly 13 seconds to under 10 seconds. How could this be? The engineers were focused on creating more power while maintaining fuel economy, shouldering the burden of ever heavier cars along the way. The result? Heavier, more powerful cars at the expense of improved fuel efficiency.

The question now becomes – why were these cars heavier? Easy. More stuff. And bigger cars.

Power windows, power locks, power seats, power moonroof, going from two speaker audio systems to 13 speaker audio systems, navigation systems, power tilt/telescope steering wheels, and the list goes on. Every time a power accessory is added a motor is added, which takes additional wiring, all of which contributes more weight. We now have cars with massage seats built in. How much of this stuff is really needed?

Also, the move to sport utility vehicles (SUVs) was in full swing. The larger vehicles (many of which are equipped with a full complement of luxury features) added both size and weight to the equation. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Americans in general did not care about fuel economy nearly as much as they wanted their toys.

So now the question is this – how will a move toward a higher corporate average fuel economy be accomplished? While we feel that the standard will be relaxed prior to 2025, we also feel that efforts will be made to move toward that standard. Let’s take a look at some of the technology that will be used to make this happen.

In no particular order:

Increased manufacture of hybrid vehicles

According to this study by R.L. Polk, hybrid vehicles made up 2.9% of all light vehicles on the road in the United States in 2009. That total dropped to 2.6% in 2010. This was the first year-over-year drop in hybrid sales. Polk expects that hybrid vehicle sales will rebound and improve in the future as more makers make them available. J.D. Power sees less than 10% hybrid penetration by 2016. It will be difficult to achieve CAFE of over 50 miles per gallon unless hybrid sales increase dramatically beyond this forecast.

Increased availability and purchase of diesel fuel automobiles in the United States

Yeah, right.

Improved technology applied to existing vehicle technology

This may offer a significant key to taking our current automobiles and making them better. New technologies (along with some old ones) can be layered into existing vehicles to improve fuel efficiency without significant compromises in the driving experience. Let’s take a look at just a couple.

Engine Start/Stop technology

The cutting edge in engine management systems now incorporates the ability to shut the engine off while idling, and start it again as you accelerate. This technology saves fuel while reducing emissions. It is estimated that idle losses account for 6% of energy losses. Remove all of that idle time and you’ve just increased fuel efficiency by 6% or so.

Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs)

Nissan has used CVT technology since 2003 (Murano) in the United States and since 1992 (March) globally. The first mass produced automotive application of CVT technology was the 1987 Japanese domestic market Justy by Subaru. The efficiency advantage of the CVT is in its name – Continuously Variable Transmission. No matter how many gears a conventional automatic transmission has (up to eight in current era luxury/performance cars but more like five or six in the cars we mere mortals drive), the conventional automatic can only be in those discrete positions, while the CVT can be anywere throughout its entire range of operation. The advantage of being continuously variable is that one is never “between gears”. More importantly, this efficiency absolutely relates to fuel economy. Let’s take a look at a current example.

2012 Nissan Versa (CVT) and 2011 Chevrolet Cruze ECO (6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic)

Chevrolet boasts that the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco provides the best fuel economy of any gasoline powered vehicle – 42 miles per gallon highway (manual transmission). Try as we might, we could find no hard data regarding manual transmission vs. automatic transmission preference among U.S. buyers. That said, the vast majority of automobile drivers in the U.S. favor automatic transmissions over the shift it yourself type. While Cruze Eco manual transmission offers 42 mpg highway, and 28 mpg city, the more important “Combined” number is 33 mpg. Why more important? As we say to anyone that will listen – nobody lives on the highway. And it is impossible to drive only on the highway. Combined is a much more “real world” expectation, and one that we have found to be reasonably accurate. When one moves to the 6-speed automatic transmission equipped Cruze Eco, the fuel economy becomes 26 mpg city, 37 mpg highway, and 30 mpg combined.

The upcoming 2012 Nissan Versa sedan equipped with a CVT offers up 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, and 33 mpg combined or 10% higher than the Cruze Eco 6-speed automatic. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, the Versa CVT is more efficient than the 6-speed automatic and as efficient as the higher-rated 6-speed manual, in real world driving.

According to government studies, a move from a conventional automatic transmission to a continuously variable transmission will yield a fuel economy improvement of 6%.

100% Electric Vehicles

This will likely be the shortest segment here (after “Increased Use of Diesels”).

According to various sources compiled by the EPA, the single biggest source of poor fuel economy is the internal combustion engine, as it is only 25% efficient. The single biggest source of energy loss is heat loss. In comparison, according to a study by the Department of Energy, a standard efficiency electric motor is 75% efficient, with an energy-efficient motor approaching 95% efficiency. Seems like a no-brainer to us.

Finally – smaller, lighter cars

As much as this makes sense, Americans have shown no real desire to move in this direction over the last 30 or 40 years, and we don’t really expect that to change much. As the cost of gasoline at the pump continues to ratchet up, we may see this attitude start to change.

So… will CAFE be higher in 14 years? We think so. Will it double from today? Not likely. Current and future innovations will move us in the proper direction. American’s tastes (and Detroit special interests) will keep a lid on the improvement.

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