TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Charlie Klein, who leads a group at General Motors tasked with meeting global fuel-economy rules, says new efficiency targets from the Obama Admin. provide regulatory certainty to the industry, but it remains unclear if a game-changing breakthrough to meet them is on the horizon.

“If we put on our short-term view, boy it’s hard to see,” he tells Ward’s after a presentation to the annual Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here. “Frankly, we don’t know what the next level of innovations are.”

A recent Ward’s survey shows rank-and-file engineers and designers expressing skepticism over reaching strict fuel-economy targets.

But regulators say the industry can achieve 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) for their light-vehicle fleets by 2025, from 27 mpg (8.7 L/100 km) today, mostly by optimizing traditional propulsion systems and sprinkling in hybrid-electric and fully electric vehicles.

Klein agrees, citing in his presentation current GM innovations such as cylinder deactivation, direct injection and the auto maker’s powerful eAssist stop/start technology making today’s powertrains more efficient.

He says big game-changers might be harder to come by, but he doesn’t discount good old-fashioned ingenuity.

“Innovation is hard to quantify,” he says, calling a product such as the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle “unthinkable” 10 years ago.

As such, Klein was pleased to see a “mid-term grade” included in the corporate average fuel-economy rule improvements proposed last week.

In 2021, the industry, government and environmentalists will sit down again and examine whether the 2025 goals would be too much of a stretch or within reach. Some pundits already speculate the assessment could lead to more political wrangling between the three sides.

“That is an intelligent approach,” says Klein, director-global mass, energy and aerodynamics at GM. “To see through to 2025 is a very, very difficult proposition.

“We owe it to ourselves to take an honest assessment of where we are at that time frame technically, economically and environmentally.”

Credits similar to those in current fuel-economy rules peaking at 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) in 2016 also will help auto makers hit the 54.5-mpg bogey, he says.

Right now, auto makers earn credits for items such as environmentally friendly air-conditioning units, and future incentives for hybrids and EVs are expected to drive greater penetration of alternative-propulsion vehicles.

“The credits as outlined will be a positive incentive to advanced propulsion,” Klein says. “In a period of uncertainty, we have got to have incentives that help the auto makers continue to drive that into the marketplace.”

As a weight-loss expert, Klein sees eliminating mass as a key enabler to improving fuel economy, although he stops short of estimating how much the average vehicle might need to shed.

Other experts at the conference have estimated somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 lbs. (113 kg).

“There is no simple answer,” Klein says. “It varies by segment. It varies by the utility of the vehicle.

“But we absolutely have a clear vision on what we are going to do by segment, as well as working hard on advanced materials, such as high-strength steel applications, to drive mass out of our vehicles.”

He says recognition by regulators in the rulemaking that trucks present a unique challenge to auto makers will help the industry, as well.

The 2025 rules would require a 5% efficiency improvement annually for passenger cars and 3.5% for light trucks in the first five years and 5% every four years after until 2025.

“The acknowledgment that trucks have a different utility is important,” Klein says.

GM also remains committed to hydrogen fuel-cell technology as a potential game-changer that could remove vehicles from the entire energy debate, he says.

Over the years, the auto maker has sunk millions of dollars into fuel-cell development, hoping to put vehicles on U.S roads in reasonable volumes by the end of the last decade.

GM Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson recently said it would probably be 2020 before fuel-cell vehicles are practical from both the cost and infrastructure-support perspectives.

“We continue to develop (hydrogen),” Klein says. “Hydrogen and fuel cells have a huge dependency on infrastructure. They are co-dependent. Not knowing the future, we have to be ready.”

jamend@wardsauto.com