Jim Kliesch, the Clean Vehicles Program research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), is noticing a change. Instead of hyping marquee "green" cars, auto manufacturers are settling into a groove where they regularly show off packages of conventional fuel-saving methods that will allow them to bring more-efficient vehicles to market. These small changes add up to noticeable results, he said during an interview at the New York Auto Show last week, and that's important, since fuel efficiency is a big part of the ongoing revitalization of the industry.
"A number of manufacturers have talked about the wide array of new models that they'll be bringing to the market in the next year," he said, "and it's clear they're recognizing consumers want to get back into showrooms and they want to have products to deliver. A key part of that equation is having fuel efficient vehicles that people want and need when gas is $4 of $5 a gallon. It's all tied together."
We've seen fuel efficiency standards drive technology for 30 years, and when the standards stagnated, new fuel efficient technologies were not put on vehicles.
"What automakers have realized is that if you package these technologies together and put a better engine with a better transmission with less mass, you can take a decent-sized bite out of the fuel you consume," Kliesch said, citing Mazda's branding of Skyactiv and Ford's EcoBoost moniker as two examples. "What it's doing is it's making consumers realize that, if they want a more fuel-efficient vehicle, they can seek out these other ways to get it. They don't have to buy a hybrid. There are plenty of other ways to get good fuel economy."
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The new fuel economy standards – 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 – are, in part, driving these changes. "There is less talk at the reveals of 'here are the standards, here is how we fit into it,'" he said. "But, when you talk to folks separately, they are certainly acknowledging that the technology has been put in to meet the standards.
"We've seen fuel efficiency standards drive technology for 30 years, and when the standards stagnated, new fuel efficient technologies were not put on vehicles – or when they were put on vehicles it was only to make the vehicles more powerful. There's a long, proven track record that standards do drive technologies in in this industry."
There's another track record, too, the one where the automakers finagle the rules to their advantage.
"The way that the standards were structured afforded the automakers flexibility in how they met the standards, which is not a bad thing. But, these flexibility mechanisms, as they are called, can, if manufacturers decide to take advantage of them, turn into loopholes."
But these flexibility mechanisms can turn into loopholes.
A good example of that is the way the attribute-based system defines cars and trucks, and sets a different MPG standard for each type. If the OEMs start designing their cars to meet the regulatory definition of what makes a truck – by giving them a bit more ground clearance or higher approach angles, for example – then that would lower the overall fuel saving requirement. Kleisch said we've seen this sort of "gaming of the system" in the past when a car magically became a truck *cough*PT Cruiser*cough* so, "what we are going to be actively doing for the next number of years is pushing to ensure that the flexibility mechanisms put into the system are not being abused by the industry."