Traditionally, there are two groups facing off over fuel economy (gas mileage) standards. On the side of raising standards are environmentalists, consumer groups seeking to lower lifetime ownership costs, and a few small groups such as generals wanting to reduce our reliance on oil from “threat-producing” countries. On the other side, invariably, is the auto industry.
This time, that “invariably” is not quite so strong. While GM, Ford, and FCA likely are seeking to cut back the EPA’s ambitious gas-mileage standards, their suppliers are trying to keep those standards intact. At the same time, some automakers think the United States needs the rules to keep up with global demand.
The case of the automakers is fairly simple: it costs money to develop and implement more efficient vehicles, and GM, Ford, and FCA rely heavily on pickup trucks, large cars (for FCA), and big SUVs. Ford and GM likely lose money on their small cars, and small crossovers are dominated by Asian makers.
The case for the suppliers has two prongs: higher standards mean more jobs in their industries, particularly in lightweight materials (from new alloys to ceramics and plastics) and in emission controls (particularly — pun intended, can you see it? — required by diesels). The suppliers also claim that if the standards were loosened too much, the United States would fall behind on advanced vehicle technologies and likely end up unable to compete at all.
The suppliers also pointed out that they had made substantial R&D and tooling investments, and would be hurt if the economy standards were suddenly dropped. Currently, the goal is to drop carbon dioxide emissions to the point where it seemed that cars had an average economy of 51 mpg. That seems like a lot until one realizes that the figure is (a) based on 1970s-style measurements, and is exceedingly generous in that regard, and (b) allows all sorts of special treatment for things like dual-fuel vehicles though they will almost certainly never run the second fuel.
One group, the BlueGreen alliance, claimed that over 288,000 people make parts and materials to raise fuel economy, in 48 states. This is likely a generous estimate, but suppliers have spent a great deal on research and development of economy measures — money which needs to have returns.
To prepare for the standards, automakers have followed a few different paths. Ford, using a team lifted directly from Chrysler in 1998, pushed ahead with aluminum and (also like Chrysler, but in the 1980s) smaller turbocharged engines. GM pushed forward on electric cars and learned to mix steel and aluminum better than anyone else. Both GM and Ford worked together on ten-speed automatics. Over at FCA, the first stop was wide-range automatic transmissions, followed by reducing parasitic losses and, finally, mild and plug-in hybrids and turbocharging. All three tried extra-small, high-pressure-turbocharged engines, but those seem to be a dead end… at least without an electric boost.
The author of Dodge Viper, Jeep’s Go-Anywhere Vehicles, and The Rise and Reinvention of Chrysler Minivans, David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.info and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form (preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304.