Hybrid cars, electrics zoom past 100 m.p.g.
Hybrid cars are finally on track in the US as automakers reach for new refinement on electrics.
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Other industry watchers agree that small steps added together will make a huge difference over the coming decades. "When you want to form metal, you don't smash it with a sledgehammer all at once," says Phil Gott, managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting in Boston. "You take a small hammer and you work away at it one small blow at a time."Skip to next paragraph
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Among those small, game-changing hits: more efficient transmissions, turbochargers, so-called "stop-start" technology, direct-injection engines, lighter designs that don't sacrifice safety, and shaping contours to minimize wind resistance. Mr. Gott projects average gains of 0.5 percent to 1 percent per year in fuel-efficiency over coming years.
"Virtually every vehicle on the market will have some kind of an energy-recovery system on it," making it a hybrid of some sort or another, Gott says. These include features such as regenerative braking, which helps charge the electric motor, and stop-start, in which engines automatically shut down to save fuel when the vehicle stops moving.
Across the board, auto-makers are tweaking their internal-combustion engines and reporting big gains in fuel-efficiency. Ford says its new EcoBoost engines will be introduced across its product line. Its four-cylinder engines, it says, will have the performance of a V6, and its V6s the performance of V8s.
The Mazda Sky-G engine, being planned for the Mazda3 compact in 2015, will get 40 m.p.g. without being a hybrid car. That compares with 33 m.p.g. for the current Mazda3. The Sky-D diesel-powered Mazda6, a larger car, will get about 43 m.p.g. on the highway, compared with 30 m.p.g. for the current model.
Mr. DeCicco does make a key assumption that future innovations will be aimed at better fuel economy, not better performance. And he doesn't predict whether the US government, corporations, or the public will choose to make these changes ("That's not a technological question," he says), only that they are possible.
The industry has already taken the less difficult steps to improve fuel economy, says Giorgio Rizzoni, director of the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State University. "Now we need to roll up our sleeves and do the difficult things."
Modern vehicles are complex systems, difficult to design and build. But that also allows for many opportunities to make small but significant improvements. "The only thing that matches an automobile in complexity is an airplane," he says.
Right now is "the most exciting time" in more than a century for the automobile, Dr. Rizzoni says. "There is no conspiracy to prevent automobiles from becoming more efficient. [But] the reality is that it is a really difficult problem. It's going to take decades to go through this transformation."
To lure consumers into small, fuel-efficient cars, manufacturers are packing them with high-tech features and high- quality interiors, while keeping the prices modest. "The consumer is gradually understanding that you can have a very, very nice small car," Gott says.
Race cars show that small vehicles can also protect their passengers, he says. "It's not impossible to make a safe small car."
But as automakers bring more and more compact, fuel-efficient cars to market in the next few years, they will wait nervously to see if the public will embrace them. Manufacturers "can achieve those [fuel-efficiency] goals if there's a market that will buy those vehicles," Gott says. "That's the bottom line."