New CAFE regs could bring 'unintended consequences' for small cars

  • 25-Apr-2012 03:52 EDT

OEMs will have to prepare customers for the different operating characteristics of new powertrains designed and calibrated to optimize fuel efficiency, said Chrysler's Tim White.

OEMs need to prepare their customers’ expectations for the different and in some cases unusual operating characteristics of new fuel-efficiency technologies aimed at meeting the 2017-25 CAFE standards, stressed an expert panel of engineers at the SAE 2012 World Congress. And the attribute-based standards could adversely impact sales of the smaller vehicle segments, the experts noted.

In the technical session, “Connecting 27.5, 35.5, and 54.5 mpg: What are the implications of finding a roadmap that meets the new CAFE limits?” the panelists (including an official from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) discussed the various combinations of technologies that will be necessary to move the U.S. vehicle fleet to a 54.5-mpg average for passenger cars, and the implications they present to consumers.

“We’re moving from a customer-driven market to a regulatory-driven market,” observed Tim White, Director of Powertrain Applications Engineering at Chrysler. White cited the example of stop/start technology’s slow introduction in the U.S., which has over 90% automatic transmissions in the vehicle fleet, with its relatively rapid adoption in Europe, which is dominated by manual gearboxes. Both regions have very different driver behavior and vehicle expectations.

“We have to prepare customers for these new features,” which often give the vehicle a vastly different operating character than those currently in use, he said.

White also cautioned that some technologies don’t complement one another well—“Variable valve timing aimed at reducing pumping loss are not always synergistic with some transmission technologies that are aimed at increasing engine load, for the purpose of reducing pumping loss,” he said.

He added that retaining vehicle functionality for the end user was crucial to ensure the regulations don’t kill vehicle sales.

Rick Gezelle, Toyota’s U.S. National Manager of Regulatory Affairs, stressed the importance of reducing cost of additional technology along the path to 2025. “If customers can’t afford the upfront purchase price of a new vehicle, there will be no payback in fuel economy,” he said, noting that's why Toyota is focusing on reducing cost in its next-generation hybrids, rather than improving performance.

One of Toyota’s greatest concerns is in being pushed to add higher levels of fuel-efficiency equipment to smaller vehicles, which he said can “have more than two times cost-up vs. larger vehicles.

“We see practical limits to adding technologies to the small-vehicle segment,” Gezelle said. “Attribute-based standards [as the new CAFE is based on] could create unintended consequences for small vehicles. They could increase the cost of smaller cars. We worry about affordability, as small cars are the most price-sensitive segment.”

Gezelle and White were responding to the presentation by NHTSA Fuel Economy Division Chief, Jim Tamm, who laid out the basic regulatory details of the 2012-25 CAFE plan that raises U.S. fleet fuel efficiency for cars from the current 27.5 mpg to 35.5 mpg, and finally to 54.5 mpg.

The plan includes a review period in 2018 that the two OEM executives agreed was a “critical safety net” for the industry. Tamm said it was also “essential” from the regulatory perspective—“allowing us to reconfirm we’re on the right path, or make adjustments as needed.”

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