Poor Hybrid Sales Threaten 2025 CAFE Targets

“The dogs aren’t eating the dog food” is a “Mad Men”-era saying that sums up the frustration marketers feel when consumers do not behave as expected.

California may be drying up and calling for another 40% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, but thanks to low gas prices, consumers are buying cars like it’s 1999, shunning fuel-efficient small cars and hybrid-electric vehicles for SUVs, CUVs and old-school muscle cars.

That exasperation was clear at the recent SAE World Congress, where powertrain engineers worried major technical advances in fuel economy and emissions would be nullified by lack of consumer interest in HEVs and other green vehicles, making it impossible to hit the U.S. government’s unadjusted CAFE goal of 54.5 mpg (4.3L/100 km) by 2025.

None suggest an actual rollback in the regulations, but several top engineers say they hope federal rulemakers will recognize marketplace realities during the upcoming midterm review of 2025 targets, perhaps by giving more credit to technologies that offer benefits in real-world driving that current U.S. EPA testing cycles scarcely recognize.

Such “off-cycle” credits already exist for air-conditioning improvements, active aerodynamics and adaptive cruise control.

Pointing to plummeting HEV sales and recent data that show only 30%-35% of HEV owners purchase another, Chris Cowland, director-Advanced and SRT Powertrain for Fiat Chrysler, expresses grave concerns about the current disconnect between the regulations and consumer demand.

“We believe that we do have technologies that can technically meet the targets but we must be able to commercially produce these vehicles and sell them to customers who want to keep returning to them,” he says.

Cowland adds that while HEVs are selling poorly even with big incentives, FCA is completely sold out of gas-guzzling 707-hp Hellcat Challenger and Charger models with zero spiffs.

“Maybe these two excesses show we’ve got a marketing, commercial and technical challenge for 2025,” he says.

2022 Seen as Pivotal Year

Automakers are most concerned about the 2022-2025 timeframe when the cost of compliance rises sharply.

“We must be mindful of costs to the individual customer,” warns Ayumu Matsuo, chief engineer-Honda R&D. However, Matsuo makes it clear that the truly difficult part of meeting the 2022-2025 standards will be providing all the functionality, refinement and torque that customers will demand. “Customers want acceleration, performance, NVH and things such as towing capability,” he says.

Honda will meet these criteria by boosting the efficiency of conventional engines and drivetrains, reducing weight, adding electrification and moving into advanced fuel-cell powertrains, Matsuo says.  Honda envisions battery-electric vehicles for city dwellers, HEV and PHEV powertrains for suburbanites and FCVs “for unlimited driving conditions with zero tailpipe emissions.”

Honda’s FCV will be available this year in Japan, followed later by the U.S. and EU.

All stakeholders, even local governments and customers must work to overcome market barriers for hydrogen, Matsuo says.

Industry sources peg the cost of a nationwide U.S. hydrogen refueling infrastructure at about $25 billion. Toyota and Hyundai also are major proponents of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, but much of the industry is taking a wait-and-see approach.

On the other hand, 48-volt systems are headed on a strong near-term growth curve starting in 2016, says Kregg Wiggins, senior vice president-Powertrain NA, Continental Automotive.

Relatively low-voltage 48V systems are less powerful and have much smaller batteries than conventional HEVs, but that also makes them far less costly. Entry-level 48V systems replace the alternator with an electric motor and provide stop/start capabilities and a “sailing” function that can take over for the gasoline engine for brief periods at up to 25 mph (40 km/h) that can ultimately improve fuel economy 7%-15%, Wiggins says.

Once the 48V architecture is in place, the next steps can be taken to electrify the air conditioner- compressor and fluid pumps, and even have an electric e-compressor that provides low-end boost before the turbocharger spools up, Wiggins says.

Conventional step transmissions will remain in the mix for the foreseeable future but will evolve at a much faster pace, says Dean Guard, director-Global Engine Engineering, GM Powertrain. The number of gears will continue to grow and CVTs are gaining favor, especially at General Motors, Guard says.

Rather than looking strictly at the mechanical efficiencies of transmissions, GM now is taking a more holistic, physics-based approach to how it evaluates the interplay between engines, transmissions and the entire vehicle.

“We know step-gear transmissions are mechanically more efficient than CVTs, but maybe what we didn’t fully realize is the CVT transmissions could match well with the engines and give us better combined fuel economy due to effectively infinite ratio capability,” Guard says.

That means GM now is more focused on keeping engines within their optimum operating range at all times in terms of fuel economy and emissions. And that means embracing CVTs and step-gear transmissions with 8, 9 and 10 speeds.

The road to 2025 does have some bright spots, SAE speakers agree. By 2020, the majority of the world likely will be using one of two light-duty test cycles for fuel economy and emissions, which will greatly simplify engineering development.

Secondly, a global consensus about carbon-dioxide-emissions standards is emerging. While the standards are daunting, Guard and his colleagues see a silver lining.

“We are in a time of unprecedented global CO2 convergence pressure. On one hand, this is an incredible challenge facing our entire industry, yet on the other it is a great opportunity for global scale of fuel-economy-enabling technologies and collaborations to implement them,” he says.

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