Auto industry revs up for race to meet fuel standards

A federal mandate to slash the nation’s fuel demand has refiners bracing for a sales hit. But automotive and petrochemical engineers are heading into overdrive to create gas-saving technologies.

New fuel economy targets require auto makers to nearly double the average miles per gallon of passenger vehicles, hitting 54.5 by 2025. That means cars and trucks that Americans buy in 13 years will be smaller with turbo-charged engines and more assisted-driving features that cut back on trips to the gas pump, industry analysts say.

From Ford’s EcoBoost engine to Chrysler’s nine-speed transmission, auto companies are working to make their cars and trucks more fuel efficient. That’s bad news for the nation’s refineries, which already have seen demand for their petroleum products drop more than 10 percent since 2006.

The decline is expected to continue. Some industry leaders say gasoline demand in the United States peaked several years ago and will fall for the foreseeable future. Refineries have closed in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands in recent years.

“You can’t just take away 20 to 40 percent of your market and expect these things to run,” said Charles Drevna, president of the trade organization American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.

“If these things come to pass, I think there is going to have to be another look at how economic these refineries can be,” he said.

‘Toughest challenge’

Drevna said he’s skeptical that the auto industry will hit the aggressive federal targets. Manufacturers are challenged to turn the gas guzzlers that Americans historically have liked into fuel sippers, without sacrificing safety, cost and performance.

“It’s fair to say that the challenge they are facing now will be the toughest challenge they have ever faced,” said Gary W. Rogers, president and CEO of FEV Inc., which engineers power trains and other auto systems.

To help meet the challenge, auto makers are turning to the petrochemical industry. Plants on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere process natural gas liquids that become the light-weight plastic alternatives to heavy steel auto parts. The lighter a vehicle, the less energy is needed to propel it down the road.

“It’s one of the most exciting times to be in automotive,” said Steve Henderson, president of Dow Automotive. Auto companies “need science that only companies like Dow can deliver,” he said.

Integrating several metal auto parts into one plastic component can cut the weight by as much as half, Henderson said.

Though plastic can do the job of steel with less mass, it carries a heftier price tag. For instance, carbon fiber parts have debuted in higher-end vehicles, but now there’s a push to make them affordable in family vehicles.

“Every product that we make now has a focus on reducing mass,” Henderson said. “It’s that fundamental of a change.”

Despite the growing popularity of hybrids and alternative-fuel vehicles, finding ways to reduce fuel consumption in conventional petroleum-driven cars and trucks is key, industry analysts say.

Last week, the International Energy Agency reported that existing technology could cut the world’s fuel consumption in half by 2030. The internal combustion engine using petroleum, however, will still hold at least 80 percent of the auto market then, IEA leaders said.

Given a surge in the sale of cars and trucks in emerging economies like China, the auto industry and policy makers must act fast to curb the growing global demand for petroleum, said Richard Jones, deputy executive director for the IEA.

“We cannot afford to wait for electric or hydrogen solutions,” Jones said. “Without such action, the transport energy demand will reach unsustainable proportions.”

Reducing the size and weight of conventional cars and trucks isn’t the only method that is moving auto makers toward the fuel efficiency goals.

The cars of the future will have engines that pack more power into each cubic inch. Three- and four-cylinder engines will be typical, reducing energy-wasting friction and weight from under the hood.

“It’s a lower-cost way to get better fuel economy than going to a hybrid,” Rogers said.

Nine-speed transmissions are expected to emerge as soon as next year, allowing vehicles to get closer to optimal engine power at every speed.

Automated driving

Cars and trucks will provide more automated driving as well, to reduce fuel-wasting driving habits, such as engine idling and heavy braking, said Andrew Smart, director of industry relations for SAE International, an engineering association.

Technology that turns off the engine when at a red light or gradually slows a car as it approaches heavy traffic can add up to significant fuel savings.

“I don’t know if we will get to 50 miles a gallon or not, but I think we will incrementally improve the fleet average over time,” said Greg Garland, CEO of refining and petrochemical giant Phillips 66. “You will see technology continue to push the barriers and the frontiers of efficiency.”

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