Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – Fluctuating pump prices are making it difficult for auto makers to offer consumers the latest in fuel-efficient technology, a panel of experts at the SAE World Congress here concludes.

Vehicle and parts manufacturers are working to develop a variety of alternative powertrain technologies and retool to more flexible manufacturing plants that will help them respond to the fickle marketplace.

But the cost of such technology and the complication caused by shifting demand as consumers respond to the ups and downs of gasoline prices make for a complicated equation, says Roger Clark, senior manager of energy and drive quality-General Motors Corp.

“GM looks at cost effectiveness,” he says. “We calculate the price of gas to determine how long it will take to pay back (the customer) the cost of the technology over the life of the vehicle.”

While advanced technologies such as hybrid-electric powertrains offer superior fuel economy, they are expensive, and it takes longer for consumers to recoup their investment in the initial purchase.

Clark says GM is deeply involved in all technologies, but cheaper alternatives such as improving vehicle aerodynamics, low rolling-resistance tires, advanced fuel-management systems and eco-driving aids may be the best way to appeal to a cost-conscious customer.

“All those technologies offer payback to (the consumer) at less than $3 a gallon,” he says, noting fuel costs need to rise to $3-$5 per gallon to offer the same return on other options such as stop/start systems and diesel engines.

“Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are even less cost-effective,” Clark adds.

Still, GM has seen consumer demand for fuel-efficient powertrains rise along with gasoline prices. “We’ve seen rapid (consumer) response to gas prices,” he says. “The preferences change faster than technology is developed.”

And even though gas prices have fallen in recent months, “customers are still very wary of gas spikes.”

Ultimately, Clark says GM sees great promise in hydrogen fuel-cell technology but doesn’t want “to short-change electric (vehicles).”

Gerhard Schmidt, Ford Motor Co.’s vice president-research and advanced engineering, says the auto maker has the right suite of technologies available, but the rapid shifts in the market present challenges.

“From the technology side, we’re prepared,” he says. “We have the right portfolio to address both large trucks for heavy-duty transportation, and we have small, fuel-efficient engines and vehicles. The only problem is you can’t switch overnight from producing F-150s to producing Fiestas. This is hard to achieve.

“We have manufacturing facilities that are dedicated to certain products, and even with flexible manufacturing, a small I-4 (engine) and large V-8 have different geometries. It takes time to change the tooling and machinery,” Schmidt says. “So yes, we’re prepared intellectually and with technology, but we have some physical (obstacles) to overcome when the market is swinging so fast.”

Fuel costs can add up quickly for the U.S. military, which also is seeking efficiency improvements, says Paul Skalny, director of the U.S. Army’s Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.

For every $10 increase in the cost of a barrel of crude oil, the Department of Defense’s fuel bill rises $1.3 billion, he says, noting the U.S. Army needs 140,075 fuel trucks for ongoing ground operations.

If fuel has to be transported to a remote part of Afghanistan via helicopter, it ends up costing $600 per gallon.

“Since we started (operations) in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve had to increase our (annual) fuel consumption from 50 million gallons (189 million L) to 500 million gallons (1.9 billion L),” Skalny says. “When the price of fuel increases, it has a significant impact to the military, particularly to installation budgets. Seventy-percent of the bulk tonnage we take to war is fuel.”

In an effort to mitigate costs, TARDEC is involved in a number of initiatives to improve the fuel economy of its combat vehicles, including conducting research into high-tech powertrains, weight reduction and advanced energy storage.

bpope@wardsauto.com