In response to my last column on this subject – Future Fuel Economy Mandates, Part I: 54.5 mpg is going to be hard to reach – commenter TxPatriot wondered why (non-hybrid) modern cars can't deliver the 53-58-mpg fuel economy he says his 1989 Geo Metro does. "I've yet to receive a satisfactory answer to this question," he wrote.
Well, for starters, that 23-year-old econobox did not have to carry the structure and all the equipment necessary to meet 2012 federal safety, damageability and emissions standards, or the suite of comfort, convenience and infotainment features even today's small econocars must have to compete. I'm guessing it probably weighs about two-thirds of what a current 30-to-40-mile-per-gallon subcompact does, and weight is the single most significant factor contributing to fuel efficiency.
As I wrote last time, I interviewed a large, diverse sampling of U.S. auto industry folks at this year's Detroit and Chicago auto shows to get their perspectives on the huge challenge of increasing their fleet's average fuel economy by four to five percent a year for the next 13 years. All agreed that it would be expensive and difficult, yet all were committed to doing it.
My first conversation was with Mark Fields, president of Ford North America. "From a powertrain standpoint," he said, "we have a specific strategy of continuing to downsize engines and using EcoBoost with turbocharging and direct fuel injection. Another piece is continuing to take weight out of our vehicles – 250 to 700 pounds over the next several years.
How big a role will vehicle electrification play? "It will play a big role," he responded. "By the end of this decade, we'll see anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of our sales being electrified – conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery electrics.
Our approach is electrifying the platform, as opposed to a single vehicle, which has a lot of engineering efficiencies.
How do you get the cost down and volumes up? "Our approach is electrifying the platform, as opposed to a single vehicle, which has a lot of engineering efficiencies. And our manufacturing strategy will allow us to flex [vehicle volumes]. For example, our Wayne [MI] Plant will produce the regular gas-powered Focus, the electric Focus and the C-Max hybrid."
Next we talked to Derrick Kuzak, Ford's vice president for Global Product Development. "It's the sustainability strategy we outlined four years ago," he said. "The first phase is delivery of technologies such as EcoBoost engines, six speed transmissions, battery management systems and electric power steering across all our vehicles as quickly as possible.
"The next phase, 2012 through 2020, will see us applying new technologies such as stop-start systems, second-generation EcoBoost and increasing numbers of electrified vehicles. For 2020 and beyond, I think we will have to do 10 to 25 percent of our global volume electrified. The vast majority will be hybrids, the next percentage plug-ins and the smallest percentage battery electric. But we're doing this differently than the rest of the industry by electrifying global platforms so we don't have the fixed costs of a unique platform, with multiple types of electrification to drive the scale."
How can automakers make electrified vehicles more appealing and affordable to help increase the volume they will need to meet CAFE? "Part of affordability is creating a variety of electrified vehicles on existing platforms. That drives scale and allows you to go quickly to other regions of the world. The factor that is driving acceptability is very marked improvements in fuel economy, for example improving from 41 to at least 47 mpg city for the Fusion Hybrid.
But we're doing this differently than the rest of the industry by electrifying global platforms so we don't have the fixed costs of a unique platform.
"The way we're generating those advantages is in our control system, which controls the transitions between electric and gas and sustains the battery charge. We have more than 500 patents in the control systems, and we we'll continue developing them to new levels."
Next, we sat down with Sherif Marakby, Ford's director of vehicle electrification:
"What you see here today [the 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid] is our third generation hybrid, and with each one we focused on two things that will help both CAFE and customer demand: improving fuel economy beyond the previous generation and dropping the cost below it.
"The way electrification is going to work will be by offering equal or better value than what the customer can get with conventional technology. So, we have dropped the cost of the system (to us) by 30 percent from the first to the second generation and another 30 percent from the second to the third. That is still more than what we charge the customer, but we're getting down to where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, where we see the cost and the price starting to merge. Then things will make sense for both the customer and the company.
"We don't know exactly where this technology will end up, but we see the whole pie of hybrids, plug-ins and battery electrics being higher volume because we see their costs coming down and their affordability making sense. And we've gotten the value up by increasing fuel economy, which helps meet CAFE and helps make these cars a profitable business."
Where are these cost reductions coming from? "The way we're doing it is by bringing a lot of these technologies in-house, which enables us to optimize the designs and take cost out. We source the individual parts but design and assemble the battery systems in-house, and we build the transmission and do all the controls and software in-house. We're putting long-term investments into these technologies to reduce the per-unit cost, and it's working."
Does he see much volume opportunity for pure EVs? "Not at their current prices. If you look at the pie of [our electric vehicles] in the 2020 timeframe, a couple of generations from now, we see roughly 70 percent of that being hybrids, 20-25 percent plug-in hybrids and only 5-10 percent pure EVs. We are seeing hybrids making sense, and plug-ins coming next."
Has Ford considered offering a Chevrolet Volt-like extended range EV, or mild hybrids like GM's eAssist? "We have built mild hybrid and range extender prototypes, and we believe our strategy of using our power split architecture in our plug-ins is a better value for the customer, and better efficiency, and we're proving that with the numbers. We will have a Fusion plug-in with better efficiency than the smaller Volt, so we have no plans to do that kind of system.
"And we believe our EcoBoost technology provides the same benefit as the eAssist-type system at lower cost, as proven by our 37-mpg EcoBoost versus any of the eAssist products. We believe the full hybrid is the right solution, and we are best-in-class in full hybrids.
The low-hanging fruit is gone.
Finally, we encountered Ford technology spokesman Richard Truett. "Later this year," he told us, "stop-start comes out, the beltless system on the C-Max and technology such as a variable oil pump and a split cooling system in our new 1.0-liter engine. The low-hanging fruit is gone, but we've only begun to scratch the surface of what we can do with friction reduction and electrification of components. And we're only in the first generation of EcoBoost."
Next we'll report what Chrysler and GM leaders had to say about meeting CAFE.