The Road To 2025

Can the global auto industry reach a combined fleet average of 54.5 mpg by 2025?

Not that long ago, an automaker like Ford Motor Co. had reason to crow about reaching 30 miles per gallon with a subcompact the size of the Fiesta. But the Dearborn automaker’s recently remodeled midsize Fusion hybrid sedan will deliver as much as 47 mpg. Impressive, yes — but it’s still 15 percent short of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) target of 54.5 mpg the Obama administration has set for 2025.

The subject of intense debate and compromise between regulators, automakers, and environmentalists, the new CAFE standard is far beyond what many long believed possible. And even now, “We don’t yet know how we’ll get there,” says John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America.

It’s all but certain we’ll see big changes in the cars of 2025. Today’s V-8 engines might become “as rare as white flies,” contends Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne. Yet the transition might not be as radical as skeptics have warned.

There’s little doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more hybrid vehicles; most experts anticipate a general downsizing from the big SUVs and trucks that have dominated the roads in recent decades. But that doesn’t mean we’ll all be driving battery-powered Nissan Leafs or Fiat 500s, says Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics, an automotive consulting firm in Birmingham.

There’s no question a lot of new technologies will be required to meet the standard, including some yet to be invented. It starts with the very foundation of a 2025 vehicle. Mass is the enemy of fuel efficiency, which is why Ford is aiming to slice 700 pounds out of the next-generation F-Series pickup.

There’s also growing momentum to swap steel for lighter alternatives. Aluminum is increasingly the metal of choice, especially in high-end vehicles like Jaguar’s XJ sedan. Carbon fiber, familiar to Formula One racing fans and exotic car aficionados, could be the Holy Grail. It’s phenomenally expensive, but breakthroughs are coming. And steel is fighting back with markedly lighter and stronger alloys.

The traditional gasoline engine plays a part, too. New technologies such as turbocharging and direct injection can yield simultaneous improvements in efficiency and performance. While Americans may be remarkably resistant to driving small cars, they are rapidly downsizing their engine choices. V-6s, including the new turbocharged EcoBoost, now account for the majority of engine orders on Ford F-150s. And performance cars are migrating to high-tech V-6s and I-4s.

On a related front, turbos have pumped new life into diesel engines, which now account for half of all sales in Europe. “Oil burners” are gaining ground here, as well. Volkswagen Group of America CEO Jonathan Browning predicts nearly a third of the Passats sold in the United States may soon be diesel-powered (Mazda and Chevrolet will add diesels, too).

Other technical advances include stop/start powertrain systems, which automatically shut an engine down at a stoplight. It fires up again when a driver’s foot lifts off the brake. The systems can boost mileage from 3 percent to 5 percent.

In turn, 7- and 8-speed gearboxes, where an engine operates at peak efficiency, are increasingly the norm. Chrysler plans a 9-speed for next year’s Jeep Liberty replacement, and Marchionne has hinted the engine will soon appear on all the automaker’s front-wheel-drive models. Already, the 2013 Dodge Dart offers an optional double-clutch gearbox, which melds the best of a stick shift with the ease of an automatic. Nissan, meanwhile, uses a CVT — or continuously variable transmission — to give the 2013 Altima best-in-segment mileage. Honda will adopt the same technology on the all-new 2013 Accord.

Aerodynamics will undoubtedly play a role as well. In developing the Dart, Dodge engineers all but sealed the sedan’s underbody and added front grille shutters to block air from entering the engine compartment, a major source of drag. There will be more active aerodynamic technologies such as movable rear wings, front spoilers, and perhaps flexible body panels.

Electrification will likely be commonplace by 2025 — from the “mildest” hybrids to battery-electric vehicles — although the future mix will depend on battery costs and range. Some studies predict a fourfold drop in lithium-ion battery prices by 2025, and researchers are working on ways to increase so-called energy density by a factor of eight. How well the automakers perform will determine whether the car of 2025 has a limited battery boost, requires a gas-engine “range-extender” like the Chevrolet Volt, or goes full electric like the Leaf.

In the end, the best way to reach 54.5 mpg will be to integrate as many technical advances as possible, says John Kasab, chief engineer at auto supplier Ricardo Inc. in Van Buren Township. The new CAFE rules won’t be easy to meet, and they won’t come without a price, but the industry is heading in the right direction. db