Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – The road to the 35-mpg (6.7 L/100 km) U.S. fuel-economy standard set for 2020 is not likely to be a thrill ride full of surprising twists or turns.

Instead, it will be a tough slog uphill as auto makers and suppliers struggle to lower costs and sort out the most appropriate solutions.

That’s the outlook of a panel of experts at the SAE World Congress here as they ponder where fuel-saving technology will take the auto industry as it struggles to meet tougher new fuel-economy and emissions standards.

The menu of near-term efficiency improving technology is a relatively familiar one: gasoline direct-injection combined with turbocharging and downsizing, clean diesels, hybrid-electric technology, micro-hybrids and 5- and 6-speed transmissions giving way to 7- and 8-speed versions.

A bit further down the road, the panel foresees more exotic combustion strategies, extended-range electric vehicles and, ultimately, hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles.

The industry has reached an era of “technological neutrality,” where most players are familiar with the technical options available in the future and are likely capable of buying it from suppliers if it is not their strength, says industry veteran Trevor O. Jones, chairman-NRC Commission on fuel-economy technology for light-duty vehicles.

The biggest problem will be cost issues and implementing the technologies while still managing to make a profit, most panelists agree.

Some gains still can be made by focusing on such things as reducing friction with roller bearings and special low-friction coatings on various engine parts, such as piston rings.

Vehicle underbodies and powertrain cooling systems also can be further optimized to improve aerodynamics and fuel economy, panelists say.

Most participants do not see a dramatic downsizing of the vehicle mix during the next 10 years to achieve higher fuel-economy targets. However, John Juriga, director-powertrain at the Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center Inc., says he does expect Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.’s and Kia Motor Corp.’s product mix to decrease in size in order to improve fleet-fuel economy.

How big a role clean diesels will play in improving fleet fuel economy remains uncertain, with several panelists skeptical of diesel’s high initial price. Diesel proponents tout the declining relative price of the fuel, efficiency, tax breaks and high resale value.

dwinter@wardsauto.com