How will industry innovate? Getting to 54.5 mpg

“We have a rule in place,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Environment Group’s Clean Energy Program. “Now we want to have a discussion on what the rule means to industry. How is the industry going to innovate?”

Cuttino, speaking on September 18 at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, introduced a panel of industry experts to discuss the real-world impact of new federal fuel economy and emissions rules, which require a U.S. fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

The application of new fuel-saving and emission reduction technologies, Cuttino said, can help insure that U.S. companies and workers “lead in the development, manufacture and export of advanced vehicles.”

Panelists discuss fuel economy in Dearborn, Sept 18: From left, Andrew Smart, Society for Automotive Engineers; Brad Markell, United Auto Workers; Doug Baker, Tecat Engineering; Jay Baron, Center for Automotive Research

No silver bullet: The panelists presented a variety of approaches underway at auto manufacturers, suppliers, and research organizations. No single technology, they pointed out, can double fuel economy from present standards and also significantly reduce tailpipe emissions.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Andrew Smart, Director of Automotive Headquarters for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International. “But there is a lot of silver shrapnel.”

Brad Markell, an International Representative from the United Auto Workers, suggested that “advanced conventional technologies,” rather than a rapid shift to hybrid, electric or alternative fuel vehicles, will be key to meeting the new standard.

“Turbocharging and downsized engines will be in 90 percent of the fleet,” he said. “Eight speed transmissions will be in 90 percent of the fleet. High efficiency gear boxes will be in 90 percent of the fleet.”

Lighter cars, stronger glue: Jay Baron, president of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR), said that lightweighting of vehicles is a “technology of choice” for gas-powered, diesel, hybrid and electric vehicles. When a vehicle is lighter, there is less burden on its engine and it can go further on each mile of gas (or each electric charge.)

“Every year, you’re going to see more aluminum in the car,” he said. “You’re going to see aluminum doors in the next year or so.” Composite materials, made of plastics and resins, will also become more common. Carbon fiber, still quite costly, is more likely to be a long-term solution.

In the near term, said Baron, vehicles will be made from mixed materials ‚Äì steel and aluminum and composites. CAR has initiated a Coalition for Lightweighting Materials (CALM) to help companies from different industries ‚Äìauto, steel, plastics and aluminum ‚Äì work together to find solutions. One issue, he pointed out, is developing methods to¬≠¬≠ join materials with different physical properties, creating a business opportunity for the chemical industry. “I see adhesives as an enabler,” Baron said.

Although cars will become lighter, Baron said, government regulators are insisting that all vehicles retain current ‚Äì or improved ‚Äì performance on passenger safety. “NHTSA has said there will be no compromise,” he explained. “That will not be tolerated.”

Sooner than you think: “If you look at where we need to get by 2025,” said SAE’s Andrew Smart, “2025 is tomorrow.” Manufacturers need substantial lead time, he explained, to develop and produce the advance technology needed to meet the new standards.

One limiting factor: The available supply of engineering talent. “The U.S. is 27th in the developed world in terms of engineering graduates,” he said. Educators, industry and government need to work together on “workforce development, attraction and retention.”

More stuff means more jobs: While skilled engineers will be in demand, the requirement to add value to new vehicles will also create jobs for auto workers, said the UAW’s Markell. “If you think about the extra technology that needs to be put on a car,” he said, citing turbochargers as one example, “that’s more stuff. That more stuff has to be engineered by somebody and produced by somebody.”

“If you have eight or nine speed transmissions” which will replace less fuel efficient six-speed models, “somebody is going to make those extra gears. That’s creating business opportunities in the forging and casting industry, extending to second and third tier suppliers.”

New government regulations on fuel economy, he pointed out, are consistent with current consumer demand. “Consumers are starting to look at the price of fuel and factor it into their decisions,” he said. “Five or ten years ago, fuel economy would be way down on the list of reasons” when buying a new vehicle. “Now, no matter what’s happening to gas prices, it’s staying in the top five, sometimes in the top two or three.”

Automakers, said Markell, are adjusting to the new regulatory and market environment. “Almost every announcement about investment in new product comes along with a fuel economy angle.”

Roger Kerson is a Michigan-based media consultant for labor unions and environmental organizations. He was formerly the director of public relations at the United Auto Workers.



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