Auto Outlook: Will 2025 fuel standards kill the V8?

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Sept. 2, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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The V8.

What could be more American than a U.S.-made muscle or pony car purring with power. A big black Mercury or Lincoln, a Dodge or Plymouth with supercharged Hemi V8, an Oldsmobile Rocket or a small block Chevrolet 350.

My dad owned a 1954 DeSoto Firedome V8. It was smooth, powerful and thirsty. But in post-war America, gasoline only cost 21 cents a gallon.

Now, with gasoline approaching $4 per gallon nationwide, it appears the V8 is likely to be consigned to history or nostalgia as automakers and consumers switch to vehicles with much smaller, more fuel-efficient engines.

Last week, the federal government finalized mileage standards that require automakers to nearly double average fuel economy of new cars from the current 29 miles per gallon to 35.5 mpg by 2016, reaching 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Of course, actual mileage may vary, as they say in those car commercials.

To reach those goals more cars and trucks will have to run on electricity, diesel or compressed natural gas and many of those vehicles will have four cylinder engines, or even smaller, with drivetrains far more efficient than today's most advanced six- or seven-speed gearboxes.

Government officials say the extra cost of developing the new-generation vehicles will add 30,000 jobs to the economy.

"Twenty years from now we'll be looking back on this day we chose innovation over stagnation," Michelle Robinson, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicles Program, said in a statement.

"These standards will protect consumers from high gas prices, curb global warming pollution, cut our oil use, and create new jobs in the American auto industry and around the nation."

On Wednesday, President Obama defended the new mileage mandate -- known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy or the CAFE standard -- that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has called "extreme."

"It doesn't seem extreme to me to want to build more fuel-efficient cars," Obama said during a speech in Charlottesville, Va. "Maybe the steam engine is more his speed."

The president said doubling fleet fuel-economy in the next 13 years "means you've only got to dig into your pocket to fill up your tank half as often. This is the smart thing to do ... We set goals and we meet them. That's what we do as Americans."

A Romney campaign spokeswoman said: "Governor Romney opposes the extreme standards that President Obama has imposed, which will limit choices available to American families. The president tells voters that his regulations will save them thousands of dollars at the pump, but always forgets to mention that the savings will be wiped out by having to pay thousands of dollars more upfront for unproven technology that they may not even want."

Industry experts estimate new fuel-saving technologies could add as much as $2,000 to the cost of a new vehicle, but the price would begin to come down as the technologies were widely adopted and consumers would more than recoup the added costs over time by driving vehicles that are cheaper to operate than older cars. Automakers would earn tax credits for building hybrid light trucks.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood estimates doubling mileage will save more than $1.7 trillion in fuel costs at the pump by 2025, about $8,000 over the lifetime of the vehicle. Deducting the higher cost of the technology, that's a saving of about a $3,400 to $5,000 over the life of a vehicle.

"You put better technology in the car and the price is going to go up," LaHood said. "But it goes up a fraction of what you save on gas."

The new fuel standards, which also will cut carbon emissions into the atmosphere in half, generally have the support of automakers and environmentalists.

Although the new vehicles will be smaller and lighter, most of the technological changes will come under the hood, with big Japanese automakers like Toyota and Nissan concentrating on hybrids and plug-in electrics, while smaller companies like Mazda and Chrysler improve traditional engines and transmissions to boost fuel economy.

"This is a very ambitious, aggressive fuel economy program," Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the Free Press, adding compliance would be based on what consumers want rather than what models manufacturers are required to make.

The alliance represents a dozen automakers including General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Only European manufacturers Daimler AG, parent of Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen -- which are banking on clean-diesel technology rather than electrics and hybrids -- oppose the new standards.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are to review the fuel standards program in 2018 and could make midterm changes in the standards if automakers are not achieving its goals.

The National Automobile Dealers Association, an industry group, has estimated the rules will cost automakers $157.3 billion to meet.

"Compliance with higher fuel-economy standards is based on sales, not what we put on the showroom floor," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said in a statement.

Consumers hesitant about future cars

While more new cars may resemble the Chevrolet Volt in a few years because of the increased fuel economy standards, General Motors is halting production of the extended-range electric car for a month.

The Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant where the Volt is produced will shutdown from Sept. 17 through Oct. 16. GM said the production halt is to install new equipment at the plant to make the 2014 Chevrolet Impala and is not because of poor Volt sales. GM Thursday announced the plant will make Volts for export to Australia for sale under the Holden brand, which is popular down under.

The 2013 Holden Volt goes on sale Nov. 1, The Detroit News reported. The Detroit-Hamtramck plant also builds the Opel Ampera, the European version of the Volt.

Last week, GM said it expected August sales of the Volt to reach a best-ever 2,500 vehicles. GM sold 10,666 Volts January through July, far short of the automaker's original goal of selling 45,000 Volts in 2012 and sales of the all-electric Nissan Leaf have not be anything to write home about either.

Nissan sold just 3,543 Leafs through July, down 26 percent from 2011.

The 2013 Volt can go 38 miles on a single charge before a gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the battery without interruption.

The acceptance of future cars may be just a matter of time. The government projects over time sales of hybrids, plug-in electrics and all-electric vehicles will increase from less than 3 percent of the market to nearly half of all sales in 13 years.

Sleep driving

Nearly half of the 2,506 drivers questioned by market researcher Penn Schoen said they had fallen asleep while behind the wheel or knew someone who had.

Not surprisingly, almost 90 percent of those asked said they would look at driver-alert and driver-assist technologies when buying new vehicles. Those technologies can detect a distracted driver, check a blind spot and warn of, or even correct steering, when a car wanders out of its lane.

However, the study conducted for Ford Motor Co., found more than 50 percent are not yet interested in cars that can drive themselves.

Predictability, 99 percent said they considered themselves good drivers.

Forty percent of the drivers age 18 and older said they were nervous about parallel parking.

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