Thanks to hybrid cars and electrics, the auto industry is about to put a fresh charge into the American car. Thousands of orders have already been placed for long-talked-about plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, which will be delivered in the next few months.
That trend is set to accelerate. By 2015, at least 108 models of electric or hybrid-electric vehicles will be in showrooms, more than four times as many as today, according to one analyst's forecast.
Weaning drivers off petroleum fuels yields a number of benefits, from cutting reliance on foreign oil to reducing the release of greenhouse gases. New US federal fuel-efficiency standards are a big driver of the change: They require car companies to reach a fleet average of 35.5 miles per gallon (m.p.g.) by 2016, nearly 30 percent higher than today's 27.5 m.p.g. standard.
By 2012, the government is expected to set much tougher standards for the years 2017-25. Some environmental groups advocate a fleet average of 60 m.p.g. by 2025.
But while the promise of a new world of plug-in electrics has sent a jolt through the industry, some observers say the reality is likely to be something much less dramatic: electric propulsion teamed with a technology more than a century old – the familiar internal-combustion engine.
The recently completed $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE competition sought to jump-start a new generation of safe, superfuel-efficient vehicles capable of achieving at least 100 m.p.g. (or the equivalent in electrical usage) while also meeting safety standards and achieving reasonable acceleration, braking, and maneuverability. But the winner in the "mainstream" category (a four-passenger vehicle), called the Edison2, was powered not by electricity but by an internal-combustion engine the size of a small motorcycle engine.
The Edison2's secret: lightweight design with the aerodynamics of a jet fighter. It weighs just 830 lbs. "It looks a little bit like the cockpit of a Cessna airplane," says Steve Wesoloski, who served as technical director of the X PRIZE. "You could push their vehicle with two fingers."
Liquid fuels, such as gasoline or the ethanol mix used by the Edison2, are simply more "energy dense" than today's batteries. The Edison2 carried about 40 lbs. of fuel "as opposed to [the] 400 lbs. of batteries" needed by its electricity-powered competitors, Mr. Wesoloski says.
According to a study from the University of Michigan, the United States can achieve a 60 m.p.g. average by 2035 without electric-only vehicles. To pull this off, 90 percent of the fleet would need to be hybrid cars – vehicles that run on some kind of liquid fuel assisted by electricity generated on board, with no need to plug into a power outlet.
It's the same basic idea that's been employed by the Toyota Prius for more than a decade, though the Prius achieves only about 50 m.p.g. today. What will make up the difference, says John DeCicco, a senior lecturer at the school of natural resources and environment at the University of Michigan, are a series of incremental improvements. "We're still only 10 years into the hybrid era," he says. "It's really the power of steady engineering applied over time."
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."
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."