We havenít heard much lately about Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. But, the Obama administration has quietly pushed the required average of 35.5 mpg up†four years from 2020 to 2016. Thatís a 34 percent increase over todayís average of 26.4 mpg and it must be accomplished in 40 percent†less time.
When Iíve blogged in the past about concern that lighter tow vehicles could hurt our industry, some of you commented you were sure the auto makers had time to get it done through improved engine technology. That would be ideal, of course. But I canít seem to shake off a nagging suspicion that, ultimately, weight reduction will be the primary route. After all, thatís the logical path weíve followed in boat building.†
For one thing, itís reported that most of the fruit has already been picked off the tree of† combustion engineering. The motor gurus say, at best, only a 15-20 percent improvement could be squeezed from existing gas engines. So, engine technology can only do some of the lifting.
Since CAF… means fleetwide average, some assume the new hybrids and straight electric models will be a big help in reaching the goal. Not really. The fact is, even if these vehicles triple in sales by 2016, they would still be less than 10 percent of the nationís new cars, thus having a miniscule impact. Likewise, while diesels are reportedly 35 percent more efficient, American drivers donít want them. Even if they suddenly did, the fuel wouldnít likely be available at a price drivers would pay. Thatís because thereís a worldwide shortage of diesel-refining capacity that would take years to overcome.
So, with only about half of the needed increase possible from engine improvements, hybrids and electric cars, the most likely road to reach the 35.5 mpg promise land will be Ė weight reduction. This is especially true with the new accelerated timeline.
Interestingly, according to the engineers, a 10 percent reduction in weight will kick up the efficiency by 6 percent. That means about 30 percent of a current vehicleís weight will have to go. But, how can they do it?
Some suggest using more carbon fibers and fiberglass materials. But thatís not likely since they arenít practical for auto mass production – to much manual labor needed. Others claim there will be an increased use of aluminum, which today accounts for about 9 percent of a vehicle. There are some luxury cars already being produced with aluminum bodies and they weigh in up to 15 percent lighter than those with steel bodies. Of course, itís not as simple a solution as it looks — aluminum costs up to†four times more than steel.
So, while thereís no easy answer to meeting the latest deadline for the higher CAF… standards, reducing the weight through materials and vehicle size will have to make up at least half of the increased efficiency mandated. For many years weíve been saying lighter, smaller vehicles will have reduced boat-towing capacity and will be less safe. Suddenly that unavoidable reality is even closer than we thought.?