Maxing Out Mileage

2012-11-07T00:00:00Z Maxing Out MileageJim Gorzelany CTW Features
November 07, 2012 12:00 am  • 

New rules mandate that the average vehicle's fuel economy will nearly double by 2025, but critics say these savings may come at a cost that's too high for the average family

The Obama administration recently finalized rules that will boost the fuel economy of cars and light-duty trucks sold in the U.S. to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg by the 2025 model year, which is roughly double the current standards. The stricter standards will phase in gradually, beginning with the 2017 model year.

The administration says the program will eventually save motorists more than $8,000 in fuel savings over the life of a given vehicle and reduce the nation's oil consumption by more than two million barrels a day. What's more, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates the program will cut greenhouse-gas tailpipe emissions in half by 2025. "This groundbreaking program will result in vehicles that use less gas, travel farther and provide more efficiency for consumers than ever before - all while protecting the air we breathe and giving automakers the regulatory certainty to build the cars of the future here in America," says U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

On the other hand, critics contest the new requirements could drive up the price of a new car beyond some families' reach. The National Automobile Dealers Association estimates the average car's sticker price could rise by around $3,000 once the new rules are phased in. "This increase shuts almost seven million people out of the new car market entirely and prevents many millions more from being able to afford new vehicles that meet their needs," says NADA chairman Bill Underriner. What's more, NADA fears that new cars priced at around $15,000 or less could effectively be legislated out of existence because of the costlier standards.

But how will automakers - most of which have agreed to the new standards - be able to build cars and trucks that get an average of 54.5 mpg? For starters, given the ways the government rates and measures fuel economy, expect tomorrow's cars to average closer to 40 mpg in "real world" use. Many compact cars already get that much in highway driving, with a few midsize sedans able to get 35 mpg or better.

For starters, tomorrow's cars and trucks will become both smaller and lighter in weight, with the latter coming via extensive use of aluminum, carbon fiber and composites instead of steel. All else being equal, experts say decreasing a vehicle's weight by 10 percent enables about a three percent increase in fuel economy. Also expect to see more aerodynamic designs that allow vehicles - especially otherwise slab-shaped trucks and SUVs - to minimize drag at higher speeds for the sake of added efficiency.

Engines will likewise become smaller, but they will incorporate a plethora of technology to help maximize their performance. We're already seeing turbo-charged four-cylinder engines replacing V6 engines in many midsize cars; the Ford F150 full-size pickup's available turbo-V6 engine affords V8-like acceleration and boasts a maximum 11,300-pound tow rating.

Expect more engines to come with technology that automatically deactivates select cylinders at cruising speeds to save gas. This technology also shuts down the engine altogether when it's idle. Electric power steering that affords less drag on an engine than a conventional belt-driven system will become more common. Future automatic transmissions could offer as many as 10 forward speeds to enable smoother operation with reduced fuel consumption. Smaller cars will increasingly use lighter-weight continuously variable transmissions that eschew conventional gears for a belt and a set of pulleys to maximize both their acceleration and mileage.

What's more, we'll likely see additional "clean diesel" models on the market like the Volkswagen Passat TDI midsize sedan that combines quick acceleration with impressive fuel economy at 31-city/43-highway mpg. Lower battery prices expected in the coming years should likewise help make electrified cars - especially plug-in hybrids that get the equivalent of 100 mpg and full electric models that use no gasoline whatsoever - more prevalent and popular.

(c) CTW Features

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