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Fuel economy strategies to trump regulatory uncertainty

Key takeaways from Fuel Economy Detroit 2017

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that it would reopen the Mid-Term Evaluation (MTE) for passenger car fuel economy targets, creating a wave of uncertainty over the future uptake of fuel-efficient technologies. This news formed the backdrop to Fuel Economy Detroit, a one-day event by Automotive Megatrends. Experts discussed the weight of various approaches in light of potential changes to the legislation. Michael Nash recaps

Uncertainty surrounds regulation

While some environmental groups have voiced concern after the US EPA announcement, that very Agency’s Bill Charmley looked to the past as a source of optimism. For four consecutive years, he recalled, OEMs have outperformed greenhouse gas (GHG) standards by “investing an enormous amount of time and money in tech, which has been put into the fleet.” Charmley is confident that this trend will continue, with a host of new fuel-efficient technologies set to hit the market soon regardless of regulatory changes. The view was shared by John Juriga, Director of Powertrain, Hyundai-Kia Technical Center (HATCI), who highlighted a wide variety of approaches that can be used to enhance fuel economy.

Venturing into the unknown

One of the leading fuel economy enhancing approaches is electrification. “It will likely be a huge element in improving fuel efficiency, and with higher volume hopefully we’ll reduce costs,” Juriga said. Most of the predictions made for EV adoption to date have been relatively conservative, but automotive industry consultant Paul Eichenberg thinks that a surprise lies just over the horizon. “When considering recent OEM announcements, pending cost breakthroughs and consumer acceptance, it is clear that vehicle electrification will come faster than currently forecast.”

Stick with what you know? 

With electrification and alternative fuels gaining more traction, the future of the internal combustion engine (ICE) could be considered unstable. However, the general consensus from OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers is that there is still plenty of life left in the ICE – a view supported by Rod Beazley of Westport Fuel Systems. Despite question marks over the future of diesel following the Volkswagen emissions scandal, Denso’s Doug Patton is confident the fuel type will endure. “I don’t think diesel is dead,” he said. “It may be on life-support in some markets, but there is generally a large diesel market that is healthy and growing.”

The whole is greater

Although some individual technologies including electrification are likely to play a key role, the integration of different components and methods for reducing fuel economy will be vital. Sandra Walker, who heads up the Mass Reduction team at General Motors, thinks that “each and every component matters” when developing new vehicles. With this in mind, a mixed material approach to design with lightweighting as a focal point will allow OEMs to identify further improvements in fuel economy and performance.

Customers come first

Ultimately, customers always have and always will come first. HATCI’s Juriga thinks that the US EPA’s decision to re-evaluate fuel economy regulations is a result of President Trump “driving the message that customers can get what they want. As OEMs, it’s our job to fulfil those wants and needs and still make efficient products.” Offering customers what they want while simultaneously meeting fuel economy requirements is a tall ask, “but that’s life and the challenge we face as OEMs.”