After expressing wariness and sometimes outright contempt last year for proposed government fuel-economy standards for 2025, automotive engineers now appear to be rolling up their sleeves and getting down to the business of meeting them.

Programs for alternative-fuel vehicles, light-weighting vehicle designs and optimizing internal- combustion engines all are moving forward, and a much higher percentage of engineers seems to be getting on board.

That’s the word from the latest 2012 WardsAuto survey of nearly 700 design engineers that are subscribers to WardsAuto online and digital publications. The survey was sponsored by DuPont and conducted by Paramount Research in mid-July.

If adopted, the new fuel-economy regulations will double fuel economy and cut emissions by half compared with vehicles made in the ’10 model year. That will be difficult to achieve. Even so, a much higher percentage of respondents now seem optimistic about meeting the goals.

“Creative, innovative businesses always find a solution,” is a typical comment in the online survey. Of course, there still are plenty of dissenters worried the government is forcing technology on consumers that they are not ready to accept or able to afford.

But there is encouraging news on this front. Like last year, the survey specifically asks if there is a disconnect between what is driving vehicle development – such as government regulations, cost, consumer preference, affordable technology or fuel economy – and what really should be driving development.

This year, respondent answers suggest the public, auto makers and government are getting on the same page, helped by the fact U.S. consumers actually have started buying more fuel-efficient vehicles in the past year.

“High sales of fuel-efficient vehicles help validate that consumers do want greater efficiency and in some cases they are willing to pay more,” says Chris Murphy, DuPont’s director-global automotive industry.

However, energy forecasters have thrown a potential monkey wrench into fuel-economy plans by suggesting a slowdown in the global economy will keep fuel prices comparatively low for the foreseeable future. Low fuel prices could crimp consumer demand for more-efficient vehicles, which may change with the latest Midwest spike at the pump.

But so far, engineers say programs are moving ahead on target. In fact, 46% of respondents say alternative-powertrain programs are increasing in number, followed by 36% who say timelines are remaining on target. Another 9% report deadlines are even being sped up.

And in the “comments” section, there is a bit of chatter about compressed natural-gas programs. Only 6% of respondents say alternative-powertrain programs where they work are being cut back.

Despite the growth in alternative-powertrain programs, engineers still say light-weighting and optimizing internal-combustion engines will play the biggest role in meeting the new standards, followed by electrifying the vehicle and developing more diesel engines. Not surprisingly, fuel cells and solar power are at the bottom of the list.

However, DuPont’s Murphy says when engineers check the “light-weighting” box, they can be talking about a lot of different strategies, not just replacing a heavy part with a lighter one.

“Today’s light-weighting challenge requires a more integrated approach,” he says. “We believe we will see more hybrid material solutions, innovative fastening and joining systems and different manufacturing techniques to make significantly lighter-weight vehicles that deliver safety and performance.”

If a true technology breakthrough were to happen in the near future, a super-efficient and clean IC engine would have the greatest impact, say 28% of respondents, with another 20% saying improvements in battery density, performance and safety would be the gamechanger.

A recharging infrastructure and lower-cost lightweight materials are further down the list.

The survey also asks if the focus on fuel economy, emissions reduction and aerodynamics is forcing auto makers to sacrifice expressive design. That sparks a lively debate that may never be settled. Some respondents say improving aerodynamics will make all cars look alike.

A question about what would simplify the challenge of developing vehicles that improve fuel economy and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions provokes interesting responses.

Not surprisingly, a more specific long-term energy policy ranks first. But close behind is the desire for “improved education among consumers and policymakers to help manage expectations.”

Considering a large part of the population still believes cars will fly at some point, managing expectations sounds like a really good idea.

dwinter@wardsauto.com