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MIT symposium looks down the road to 54.5 mpg

The automotive industry has been taking a variety of approaches to achieve the government-mandated 54.5 miles per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard by 2025.

Those initiatives were the subject of the third annual automotive technology symposium held May 9 at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. The event was hosted by MIT, presented by the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA), sponsored by Chrysler, and moderated by former NEMPA president Craig Fitzgerald, editorial director at Boston branded newsletter publisher IMN.

In the introduction to the 1970’s TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man,” the announcer intones about a critically injured astronaut, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”

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Similarly, the panelists at MIT concurred that the technology is available to meet the economy standards. The question is whether the consumer is willing to pay the price.

“That 54.5 mpg is an incredibly challenging number,” said Michael Stanton, CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, a trade association-lobbying group of 13 foreign manufacturers. “The great unknowns are how consumers will accept these vehicles, what technologies will emerge, and whether the government will help provide the infrastructure for advanced vehicles.”

A big item will be cost for all parties: government, automakers, and consumers. “Right now the average price of a new vehicle is $31,000,” said Stanton. “Estimates are that the changes necessary to reach those CAFE standards will add $3,000 to $5,000 per vehicle.”

As for reducing vehicle weight, Stanton said, “We can reduce mass and do it safely, but it won’t be easy. You really have to know what you’re doing.”

That process is what Dave Leone, executive chief engineer of General Motors’ performance luxury cars, calls “light-weighting.”

“We have a saying, ‘Every gram, every engineer, every day,’” he said. “The 2014 Cadillac CTS, for example, will be 12 percent lighter but the body will be 40 percent stiffer thanks to high strength steel and other materials, plus design changes to make frame components without curves or bends.”

Leone also said that advances in internal combustion engines—direct fuel injection, active cylinder management, and electronic valve timing—translates to both additional performance and fuel economy. “Light-weighting results in a car that’s stronger, accelerates better, and is more pleasurable to drive,” he said.

Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz, general manager of Volvo’s Monitoring and Concept Center, said the projected US CAFE numbers not only are feasible but also fit with “what we’ve been planning for the past 20 years and are a complete game-changer for us.”

Power train advances have allowed Volvo to scale back from 23 engines across its line to two, one diesel and one gasoline, that are adaptable to all planed vehicles with a variety of turbocharging and electrification options.

Volvo’s V60 plug-in hybrid (with a diesel) has a range of 31 miles on electric power, can go from 0-60 in less than six seconds and was rated at an optimistic (by US standards) 125 mpg on a European circuit. It’s been a limited-production vehicle that has sold out in Europe.

Tylman-Mikiewicz promised, “The coming generations of cars will perform better, handle better, and with much better economy.”

MIT professor Tomasz Wierzbicki, director of the university’s Impact and Crashworthiness Laboratory, has been espousing automotive “weight watching” since his days at BMW, when he did a presentation on the subject in 2002.

At present, he and associate Elham Sahrael are studying ways to improve the lithium-ion batteries in many hybrids and all-electric vehicles from intrusion in crashes.

“Their construction leaves them susceptible to internal damage when they’re damaged in a crash. You can get thermal runaway, which results in gas, smoke, and possible explosion,” he said, noting that’s the problem Boeing faced with its Dreamliner battery packs.

Wierzbicki’s work leaves him familiar with new manufacturing materials and processes such as the BMW i3 electric car (molded carbon-fiber body compartment), Tesla S (all-aluminum chassis), Lamborghini Aventador and LaFerrari hybrid (carbon fiber bodies).

Of course, these materials lead to their own problems. “If you crack up a carbon fiber hood, first you’ll cry, then you’ll pay a premium to fix it,” said Tylman-Mikiewicz.

Repair techniques will change, too. There’s no cutting carbon fiber with torches. You’ll have to drill out rivets and fit the replacement piece.

The CAFE standards are due for a mid-term feasibility review in 2017-18, just after the number reaches 35.5 mpg. The review will look at the 2022-2025 standards.

“It’s a time to ask, ‘Did the government get it right,’” said Stanton of Global Automakers. “I think we’ll realize then that we have the technology but not necessarily the consumer will.”

Stanton also wonders if the industry will outpace the government with technology advances as it reduces mass and increases efficiency.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, safety was a tough sell,” he said. “Now with all the new systems out there, the industry is getting ahead of the government and is worried that some good systems have to be redesigned to comply with new regulations or guidelines. This happened with the tire pressure monitoring system and clearly will happen again as new camera technology outpaces regulations.”

“That goal (54.5) is ambitious but achievable … but only with the combined resources of government, industry, and research initiatives,” said Wierzbicki.

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