Automakers Scramble to Meet Fuel Targets

The Toronto Star

February 27, 2014

It's hard to imagine the makers of pickup trucks battling over fuel-consumption bragging rights.

But there they are; Chrysler, Ford and GM, in particular, duking it out over which of their haulers guzzles the least fuel.

Chrysler leads for now?at 10.2 L/100 km of combined highway/city driving for its 2014 Ram EcoDiesel - but Ford's aluminum-bodied F-150 (one of the hits of the Canadian International Auto Show) should close the gap.

The pickup battle is part of a larger struggle by all automakers to comply with tighter American and Canadian fuel-consumption regulations.

U.S. rules require each company's entire stable of cars and light trucks to improve each year, until it averages the equivalent of 6.6 L/100 km by 2016, and 4.3 by 2025 - about half the 2008 average.

The standards are based on vehicle size, so fuel sippers such as Honda's Fit are to achieve 5.7 liters by 2016 and 3.8 in 2025, while the Ram and its ilk must reach only 9.6 and 7.0.

Canada is "aligning" itself with the American targets, although under the guise of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Our rules aren't as tough as those in Europe, China and Japan.

They're also weakened by generous bonuses for air-conditioning improvements and alternative-fuel vehicles, as well as schemes for trading emission credits. And they'll be reviewed in 2018 - a chance for manufacturers to plead for relief.

Even so, the new regulations are challenging, and manufacturers are making it harder for themselves to comply. As recent auto shows revealed, they continue to add size, power and features; boosting profits but undermining fuel-economy efforts.

It's been the same since the dawn of internal-combustion vehicles. The earliest averaged about 11 L/100 km?similar to decades later, because while rudimentary and inefficient, they were light and boasted only a few horsepower.

Technology improved but fuel-economy suffered as weight and power swelled.

For much of the 20th century, the average consumption hovered around a thirsty 16 litres. By 1970, barge-like cars propelled by huge, sloppy V8s, scored above 17.

The 1973 Arab oil embargo inspired the first standards?called Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE in the United States?and efficiency improved. The new targets continue that trend.

Manufacturers are employing gas-saving strategies such as direct injection, turbo-charging, sophisticated valve timing, improved exhaust systems, cylinder deactivation, stop-start technology, lightweight materials, electronic steering and aerodynamic design. They're bringing on more diesel models, developing natural gas, battery and fuel-cell propulsion, and introducing tiny cars?Mitsubishi's Mirage, Ford's Fiesta and Nissan's Micra?that, if they sell in large numbers, will improve the average of their entire lineup. But they have a long way to go.

The EPA says just 28% of all 2013 cars and light trucks would meet the 2016 standard, and a mere 5%would achieve the 2025 mark.

That's low. Even worse, it includes electric and hybrid vehicles. Just 23% of the purely internal-combustion vehicles would make the 2016 grade and virtually none for 2020 and beyond. And, even by 2025, internal combustion is forecast to account for 95% of all vehicle sales.

Not surprisingly, electric vehicles lead the fuel-economy standings, followed by plug-in hybrids and hybrids.

Among imported passenger cars, Japanese manufacturers occupy six of the top seven spots, with Toyota and Honda already better than the 2016 standard and Mitsubishi close. They're also four of the top seven assembled in North America.

As for penalties, the U.S. fines $55 per vehicle for each mile per gallon over the target. Canada uses Environmental Protection Act powers, including warnings, directions, tickets, orders, injunctions or prosecution.

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