Chicago — Are you willing to pay the price -- more dollars and fewer comforts -- for a car that gets 50 miles to the gallon? Auto industry experts says your answer to that question will largely determine how soon and how many such cars are put on the road.
Ability to produce the cars, they insist, is not the issue. They point to some 1981 models, including the diesel version of Volkswagen's Rabbit and Jetta, Toyota's Starlet, Isuzu's diesel I-Mark, and the trimmest versions of Chrysler's Omni, Horizon, Champ, Colt, and General Motors' diesel Chevette, all of which already lay claim to getting 50 miles per gallon or better on the highway. GM has also been experimenting with a three-cylinder, two-passenger commuter car that would fare even better in miles per gallon.
Domestic manufacturers readily agree that achieving such fuel economy in laboratory tests and in practice are two different things. But they say the heavy competition from imports, which are getting more miles to the gallon, is the key prod behind Detroit's current five-year, $80 billion retooling effort. "Greater fuel economy is certainly the No. 1 item on every manufacturer's agenda ," confirms Al Rothenberg of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association (MVMA).
Congress has mandated that US automakers achieve an average of 27.5 miles per gallon (m.p.g.) in their fleets by 1985. But the Department of Energy (DOE) predicts that by 1985 an average of 27.5 to 31 m.p.g. is more likely. Some DOE experts see a corporate average of 40 m.p.g. coming within the next decade or two.
"I've talked with the . . . [major US automakers] about the prospects for 50, 60, even 75 miles a gallon," says Paul Lombardi of DOE's auto technology development division. "I don't think there are any limits. The figure will continue to go up until it gets to the point of diminishing returns for the motorist."
Just where that point will come is a topic of hot debate within the industry. Some see the turning point around the 35 to 40 m.p.g. mark. Others say much may depend on the future price of gasoline. But most manufacturers are convinced there is a point beyond which fuel economy will not be worth the price.
"If you pay $5,000 more for better fuel economy, and it takes you 10 years to get it back, you really haven't saved that much," says Chuck Burlingame of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
Jacques R. Maroni, director of environmental research and energy planning for the Ford Motor company, says he thinks most motorists are concerned primarily about that broader cost picture. "In the end, I don't think anyone cares as much about fuel economy as about cost per mile," he says.
Motorists who do want fuel economy above almost all else are being told they cannot have their cake and eat it, too. The trade-offs, as the industry sees them now, include fewer amenities such as air conditioning, less passenger and luggage space, and the added safety concern of driving a lighter-weight car. in Short, motorists face choices, and the industry is not sure how many Americans will really want to make them.
"There really isn't any mystery about getting high fuel economy numbers," says an MVMA engineer, Dr. Fred Bowditch. "The question is whether it's a product the general public is going to want to buy and will be happy with."
Still, the ushering in of the 50 m.p.g. car may not hinge mostly on price and consumer willingness to do without, as some in the industry have suggested. Automakers do face significant technical problems as well in making further strong advances in fuel economy. Most of the dramatic steps in that direction, they concede, already have been made. The few remaining steps -- weight cuts, sleeker aerodynamic lines, improved transmission and engine efficiency, and storing and reusing wasted heat energy -- will largely be taken by the mid-1980 s. Beyond that, motorists are likely to see smaller refinements -- "nickle and diming," in the words of industry engineers. And the impact is apt to be less noticeable.
"A five-mile-a-gallon improvement at 30 miles a gallon doesn't save as much as the same increase at 20 miles a gallon because fundamentally the car isn't using that much gas to start with," says Charles J. Elder, manager of fuel economy activities at General Motors.
Cutting weight has long been viewed as the key to greater fuel economy. The heavier the car, the more energy it takes to stop or start it. More extensive use of lighter materials such as plastics and aluminum and stepped-up production of shorter, lighter, front-wheel-drive cars are expected to continue. General Motors' front-wheel-drive X-cars offer a similar amount of room as its older Nova series, but the lighter weight of the new models nets a 35 percent gain in fuel economy. Generally, though, the auto industry already has taken out most of what engineers them "the cheap weight." Graphite, for instance, which can be used to strengthen plastic or as a substitute for steel, is almost prohibitively expensive. So is lightweight magnesium.
Some costly materials also present mechanical problems. Greater use of aluminum, for instance, is held back not only by cost but becuase it dents easily and because no way has been found to join it firmly to steel parts of the car.
US auto industry sources say there are limits to how much weight autos can shed. While a large motorcycle may get 50 m.p.g. and weigh only 500 pounds, a Chrysler Corporation spokesman argues that there is no way that a car can remain a car (with four wheels and a heater) and weigh even close to twice that amount. "What you'd have wouldn't be acceptable to most people except as a third car," he says. "You sacrifice space, ride, and comfort fairly rapidly as you make it lighter."
Sleeker design lines for cars can also help motorists get more gas mileage. At highway speeds, more than half of a car's power is used to overcome air resistance rather than keep the wheels turning. Most manufacturers have wind tunnels and are constantly on the lookout for ways to streamline car bodies.
"We see aerodynamics as an area where there's a tremendous amount of potential for good headway," comments Jay Amestoy of Volkswagen of America. But he cautions that the gains may be small and costly. Future cars, as a result of such sculpting, are in his view less likely to have roof gutters and more apt to have smooth lines with a few insets around the doors, roof, and windows.
Fine-tuning transmission systems can also save significantly on fuel. Many manufacturers already are adding a lockup device to automatic transmissions to link the engine and the top gear in a way that minimizes energy loss. In a similar vein, Volkswagen, in one of a planned series of driver-oriented fuel-saving devices, will install a dashboard light on its diesel cars to signal the driver when to shift gears on his manual transmission for maximum fuel economy.
Improving engine efficiency is another way to boost miles per gallon. Toyota , for instance, is using the same engines in most models this year as last, but has retuned them for more efficient carburetion and reengineered them for better emissions control -- resulting in 15 percent improvement in fuel economy.
But some who keep close watch on auto fuel economy progress say that the time for squeezing more m.p.g. out of conventionally designed car bodies and engines using petroleum fuels is largely past.
"I think we're close to the limit of possibilities as long as we stay with the internal combustion engine," argues Richard F. Curry of the American Automobile Association's energy division. "The only real solution to some of these problems is radical innovation.Without it, progress will continue to be made in inches instead of feet."
Work on both alternate fuels and alternate power plants, such as the high-temperature turbine and Sterling engines, continues strong. As yet, from a cost, viability, and distribution standpoint, no substitute engine appears likely to replace the internal combustion engine for at least the next few decades, according to industry experts.
The prospects for a major change in fuel are only slightly brighter. Ford's Jacques Maroni considers methanol the only "serious" contender to gasoline. He says the two will be competitors for some years to come. Although methanol is somewhat more efficient because of its high octane levels, he says its lack of availability and its potential to damage plastic distribution pumps pose significant drawbacks. In his view, the availability of alternate fuels like methanol is "the main reason people won't compromise themselves endlessly" for greater fuel economy in today's cars. He says that even in Europe, where gasoline is twice as expensive as in the United States, motorists have not made fuel economy their No. 1 priority in choosing a car.