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Reality check: Lighter tow vehicles now closer than ever

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.?


7 comments on “Reality check: Lighter tow vehicles now closer than ever

  1. Pat

    Why cant they make a significant percentage of these improvements with transmission technology, With the HP available in many cars and especially trucks having more gears or a different way of harnessing the torque I would think that substantial gains in MPG would be available with relatively minimal costs especially in comparison to all aluminum bodies and carbon fiber options for weight reductions.

  2. Bryon

    Volvo has a 5cyl all aluminum diesels. Pete has used aluminum frames for years. VW has some impressive diesels. The only alternative may be to purchase 3/4 ton pickups which would most likely be exempt from EPA mileage requirements. Commercial based trucks should have no bearing on these standards but benefit from some of the improvements. SUVs will be forced to downsize and the heavy ones eliminated. I can see problems in the recreational end but there will be loopholes.

  3. Joe fanelli

    This news caused me some immediate conern…but…perhaps its as much of an opportunity for the industry as it is a threat. If vehicles become lighter, with smaller engines and less towing capacity, then the question is of course “how will people get their boats moved around” Well…maybe there’s opportunity for more commercial towing, maybe there’s more opportunity to build dry-rack facilities. As i thought about it – there are always the guys with the Ford powerstroke diesel trucks who love to hook-up their boat and tow it away. But for most “family” boating excursions, the towing part is the worse part. …and for those who have not bought boats, but mgiht like to, there is the issue of having to buy the boat AND a heavy vehicle to tow it.

    Woudln’t it be nice to be able to just call someone to pickup your boat and have them tow it to where you are going, then drive your lighter more fuel efficient car to the lake or shore?

    Fear and fight is the classic reaction the boating industry has had to many things, and perhaps at least part of the reason that the total number of registered boats in the US has hardly grown since the 60’s. I think the industry should embrace the inevitable…cars will get smaller and lighter. So, as an industry, lets find ways to move the boats without boat owners needing to buy huge cars. The heavy car is NOT a benefit to the industry…its a necessary evil. So lets find ways to remove it from the boat-owning equation.

  4. ronnie

    I have a 2003 half ton Suburban,107,000 miles. It is Suburban # 7 since 1981. My boat, trailer ready to go weight is about 8,000 lbs. My trailer capacity is 10,000 lbs so the tandem behaves quite well both on the highway and at the boat launch. The weight ratio one to the other is quite good.
    Very seldom, I will tow the boat with my wife’s Equinox which weighs 1,500 lbs less than the Suburban. No way would I attempt to take that matchup on the highway or to the boat launch.
    So looking into the future I will just run this Suburban until the wheels fall off and decide in 2015 what to replace it with. Obviously, I am a Chevy Suburban guy but it is going to take a few years to get the Government Motors hairball out of my craw, Lincoln Navigator L might be the way I go.

  5. Gordy McKelvey

    Hey Norm, Ever heard of crate motors? If you need tow power no point in dropping 60 k plus on a new ride, spend 6 grand on a fresh engine and keep on towing.

  6. Wuwei

    I think youíre dismissing diesels too quickly. I heard the same comments many moons ago when diesels were starting to be put in some sailboats and were starting to become more common in bigger cruisers. Now nobody would dream of putting a gasoline inboard in a sailing cruiser. Those who tow for a living know that diesels make sense, and Europe has developed some really great smaller and family cars that run on diesel. Having driven a diesel car in the past I can tell you that it is much more commonly available today than just ten years ago, and the price differential can be more than made up in the fuel savings. My perception is that the market is crying for more diesels, but there just arenít enough options.

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