ANN ARBOR, MI – The auto industry is working faster than expected and introducing new technologies that had not been foreseen by government regulators when long-term corporate average fuel-economy standards were promulgated in 2012, an Environmental Protection Agency official says.

“Innovations are coming at us faster than originally anticipated,” says Michael Olechiw, director of the EPA’s Light-Duty Vehicle Center here, at a powertrain conference hosted this week by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

The event was dedicated to an update of the midterm assessment of CAFE, which will result in a technical report issued by Nov. 15, 2017, and a final determination by April 2018.

CAFE requires each automaker’s sales-weighted fleet, including light trucks, to achieve an average fuel economy of 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) by 2016 and 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) by 2025.

As of June, UMTRI reports a 25.5 mpg (9.2 L/100 km) average for all light vehicles sold in the U.S., up 5.4 mpg (2.1 km/L) since October 2007.

Olechiw says nearly 35% of ’14 vehicles in the U.S. already meet the 35.5-mpg standard for ’16.

Approaches to boost efficiency are widespread, from reducing vehicle and component mass and mitigating friction to downsizing engines and employing more forced induction and direct fuel injection.

“What we are finding is manufacturers are not only bringing technology in faster than we thought they would, they are also bringing different technology to fruition than what we anticipated,” Olechiw says.

UMTRI’s Sustainable Worldwide Transportation department tracks U.S. vehicle sales and finds the averages so far are keeping pace with the stepped improvements that must be achieved on the path to 2025.

“CAFE performance has exceeded projections the past two years,” says UMTRI project manager Brandon Schoettle. “The average new-vehicle fuel economy is near a record high.”

GDI, CVTs, Diesels Proliferating

Of course, each year requires sizable improvements by automakers, and it’s too early to say whether they will have enough high-tech firepower a decade from now to reach 54.5 mpg.

But in the meantime, Olechiw says a number of tools are being applied that had not been considered by the EPA, such as cylinder deactivation on a 4-cyl. Volkswagen engine available in Europe. And diesels are proliferating more quickly than expected.

He says continuously variable transmissions, available for many years in hybrids, “did not play a big role” in the EPA technology roadmap, but now Honda, Subaru and Nissan have improved them and are using them in more mainstream vehicles.

As a result, the EPA expects additional CVT applications in the future.

Also on the transmission front, shift strategies factor prominently into the midterm assessment.

“There’s a lot of literature from the manufacturers saying how critical it is to make sure the transmission and the transmission calibrations are properly mated to the engine to get the full benefit of engine performance,” Olechiw says.

In 2012, the agency anticipated eight speeds would be the maximum number of forward gears, but Chrysler already is in production with a 9-speed.

Ford is expected to add a 9-speed automatic for its SUVs in ’15 and a 10-speed for its F-150 in ’16, according to a WardsAuto forecast. General Motors plans to begin production of a 10-speed automatic at its plant in Romulus, MI.

“For the midterm evaluation, we will include cost and effectiveness for these types of technologies,” Olechiw says.

Other powertrain strategies the EPA is benchmarking include high compression ratios (such as on Mazda’s Skyactiv gasoline engines) and dual-clutch transmissions, as well as the recent proliferation of downsized turbocharged engines.

All architectures are being explored, including conventional internal-combustion engines, mild hybrids, full hybrids, plug-in hybrids and range extenders such as the Chevrolet Volt.

“We’re also benchmarking electrified components such as motors and batteries,” he says.

Gasoline direct injection, which boosts both efficiency and power, also is drawing much attention from the EPA.

“We anticipated this being a key technology in both the 2012 and 2017 rules,” Olechiw says. “We’re seeing a fairly high penetration of GDI, and we expect that to continue.”

Three Potential Outcomes

The midterm assessment was baked into the process at the request of automakers as perhaps an “off-ramp” in the event the program wasn’t working, says UMTRI’s Bruce Belzowski, who hosted this week’s conference.

Olechiw says the midterm evaluation could affect CAFE standards in one of three ways: “They could stay exactly the same as what we’ve promulgated or they could become less stringent or more stringent.”

The midterm assessment also is crossing international boundaries. EPA staffers have visited Japan and Germany to meet with domestic automakers and discuss technologies coming in the future.

“We plan to continue this level of stakeholder outreach going forward,” Olechiw says.

The EPA also is collaborating with Environment Canada and Transport Canada, two agencies working on similar programs to reduce fuel consumption. Certain test vehicles are being shared between the neighbor countries for research purposes.

In Ann Arbor, the EPA is actively testing the ’13 Chevrolet Malibu Eco (2.4L 4-cyl. with 6-speed auto and belted alternator starter), ’13 Chrysler 300 (3.0L V-6 with 8-speed auto), ’12 Mercedes E350 BlueTec (3.0L turbodiesel V-6 with 7-speed auto) and the ’13 Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid (1.4L I-4 with 7-speed DCT).

Olechiw says the EPA has been impressed by the Malibu’s stop/start system and the Jetta Hybrid’s “amazing fuel-economy numbers.”

The agency is considering testing the ’15 Acura TLX (2.4L I-4 with 8-speed DCT), ’14 BMW 3-Series (2.0L turbocharged I-4 with 8-speed auto) and ’14 Jeep Cherokee Sport 4x4 (2.4L I-4 with 9-speed auto).

Olechiw says the EPA will publish its detailed findings on tested vehicles and powertrains.

“A few weeks ago, a manufacturer approached me and said, ‘Are you really going to put our engine maps into the public domain?’” he says.

“The answer is yes. After we’ve spent all these taxpayer dollars and have gone through all this effort to try to figure out how these engines operate, the information will be available publicly because it’s critical to the foundation for our future analysis.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com