Streams

Better, Faster, More Efficient -- And Gas-Powered

Friday, November 11, 2011 - 02:47 PM

An exceptionally clean internal combustion engine in a Ford Cobra (Photo: (cc) Flickr user Bfraz)

(Adapted from the radio version by Sarah Gardner at Marketplace) Final details on tough new fuel economy standards for cars and trucks are due out next week. The White House is proposing 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025, a steep increase over the 2010 standard of 27.5 m.p.g., a fleet average established in the 1970s. So how will car companies get there? The staunchest EV advocates might predict that, eventually, electric cars will turn gas pumps into museum pieces and render this question irrelevant, but a few incremental achievements out of Detroit are proving the death of the internal combustion engine has been greatly exaggerated.

"We have a lot of new technology that is emerging," says Dave Cole chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Transportation. It isn't all hybrids and electric engines though. Automakers say they'll meet the 2016 fuel standard, mostly by selling lighter, more aerodynamic cars with smarter engines. Chevrolet for example offers the Cruze Eco with over 40 m.p.g.

"So every gram matters," says Sam Winegarden GM's engine guru. "The lighter it gets, the less energy it takes to move. It all works in your favor." GM shaved 100-plus pounds off the Chevy Cruze Eco to achieve more than 40 miles per gallon for the mid-sized car. The company switched to lighter wheels and other parts, but that's not all Winegarden is referring to. He's also talking about the car's engine. All the automakers are now "downsizing" under the hood.

"In a downsized engine, you have a smaller displacement. The amount of volume of air that the cylinders take," explains Steve McKinley an engineering executive at Honeywell Turbo Technologies. As carmakers move towards the "little engine that could" turbochargers will play a bigger role. The little devices give gas engines a power boost. McKinley says right now that describes only 10 percent of cars sold in North America. But by 2025, "You could see as much as 80 percent of the vehicles being turbocharged. So a pretty broad-ranging impact in order to meet future fuel economy goals."

Turbocharged small engines are common in Europe. And it's just one of the tricks up Detroit's fuel-savings sleeve. GM's Winegarden says carmakers are also tinkering with the internal combustion process. "How efficiently do we burn the fuel/air mixture?" he asks. They're also lowering the suspension on cars to reduce drag, installing easier-rolling tires, and adding devices that automatically shut off the engine when it's idling in traffic. Although they admit, some drivers balk at that one in test trials. "It's like, no, you're fine, everything's cool. It's going to start. It'll go, but you've got to get people used to that," Winegarden admits.

Carmakers are even dumping the spare tire in some models to save on gas. Together, these kinds of refinements mean squeezing about 25 percent more fuel efficiency out of the internal combustion engine.

To go beyond that some small startups are working on radical new engine designs. But achieving that 54 mile per gallon standard for the average across a company's fleet of cars means selling lots more clean diesels, hybrids and electric cars, which now account for just a tiny slice of yearly sales.

"So you're going to see a lot of emphasis on the internal combustion engine for a number of years," Winegarden predicts.

Regulators will re-visit the new fuel standards in 2019. If electric cars and hybrids haven't caught fire with consumers by then, Washington may apply the brakes on that 54 m.p.g. rule. And if a Republican wins the White House next year, some say, that could happen sooner.

Listen to Sarah Gardner's full radio piece, go to Marketplace.

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