This week, a new Ford assembly plant in central Mexico began cranking out a first for Detroit automakers: a "dual clutch" automatic transmission designed to save fuel because it emulates a stick shift, only a computer is at the helm.
Ford is also planning to turn its entire fleet to six-speed transmissions by 2013, bumping up its average miles-per-gallon rating with more exactly calibrated gears. The transmission will be paired with a more efficient engine and will appear next year in the Ford Fiesta, a compact European model the company is reintroducing in the United States after it failed to stick in the 1970s.
These moves -- advanced transmissions, efficient engines and some smaller cars -- represent one strategy that would help an automaker meet the nation's first-ever greenhouse gas standard. The final U.S. EPA rule will be released today jointly with a Department of Transportation regulation to boost fleetwide car and light-truck fuel economy to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, a level 40 percent higher than today's average.
Often lost in the buzz over electric and hydrogen-powered cars of the future is how much the rules push the auto industry to adapt their gasoline-run fleets. "We keep chasing after the silver bullets the magic wands that will solve our problems overnight," said David Friedman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicles Program.
"These rules are less about driving the development of new technologies. It's driving the application of solutions engineers have been working on for years," he said.
Automakers don't expect the rule to dictate how they should comply. As a result, within each manufacturer's compliance plan will be its own bet on what consumers will demand -- and be willing to trade off -- in the name of long-term fuel savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, experts said.
"Consumers will make the final decisions on this. This is the bet that all the companies have to make," said Bruce Belzowski, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
As the auto industry seeks to emerge from ashes, many manufacturers already are trying for the right mix of approaches, experts said.
Some will try to sell more hybrids. Others are introducing not-so-gas-guzzling SUVs. They may also push slightly downsized and small cars, such as the Ford Fiesta.
Will car buyers miss the zip?
Sticker price increases will also be involved. Fuel-saving technologies such as direct-injection turbocharged engines and the advanced transmissions may save buyers money over time but are today more expensive. Because engines and transmission last so long, Belzowski said that manufacturers would be reluctant to make these changes without the regulations.
Buyers may also be asked to accept less powerful cars, Belzowski said. While fuel economy levels flat-lined over the last two decades, efficiency did improve. Those energy savings, however, went to building 26 percent bulkier cars with double the horsepower, Friedman said. The rules would likely reverse this trend, he said.
In the end, most manufactures are trying all of these approaches, and many others. Ford, for example, is not just betting consumers will buy more compact cars. It is also squeezing efficiency improvements from SUVs by introducing "start-stop" engines that automatically shut down at stoplights, Friedman said. The engine restarts as the driver's foot leaves the brake but before it touches the gas pedal.
The regulation is also about more than fuel. By 2016, reduced greenhouse gas emissions from air conditioners and other non-fuel emissions reductions would equate to 1.5 mpg in fuel savings under the rule, according to Ann Mesnikoff, a Sierra Club advocate. Manufacturers might also get credit for lower-tech fixes such as painting car roofs white, a measure California wants to implement.
In general, experts said the standard demands a technology "evolution," not a "revolution." But with EPA and California now involved, that could change after 2016.
California is the only state that can set its own tailpipe emissions standards. Other states can follow its lead. For four decades, its regulations have driven technology advances in the auto industry, such as catalytic converters to the first viable all-electric vehicles.
More 'forcing' rules by 2016?
The state's goal, for example, of electrifying a portion of its vehicle fleet by the late 1990s and early 2000s was a big stretch that didn't work out as planned, but it pushed manufactures to spend research and development money and develop General Motors Corp.'s famous EV1, said Belzowski. And today's national greenhouse gas standard only emerged after a decadelong fight and a deal struck last year to head off California's rules.
Already, California is discussing new greenhouse gas standards that would take effect after 2016 and take the nation sometime into the 2020s. This time, environmentalists hope EPA and the Transportation Department get into discussion early.
Mesnikoff said EPA's greenhouse gas regulatory authority also brings new leverage that can go beyond the Transportation Department's traditional authority.
Automakers, she said, can't pay EPA a fee that buys them out of compliance. EPA, like California, can issue "technology forcing" standards that take a longer-term planning horizon. DOT is stuck issuing new fuel economy rules for five-year periods and so must listen harder to what the auto industry says is possible.
And less than in the past, the government will no longer have to take manufacturers at their word on that. With stakes in two of the "Big Three" automakers of Detroit, the federal government is more privy to the companies' research and devolvement plans, Belzowski noted.
That leaves environmentalists hoping for an even more stringent iteration that pushes technology shifts, including more hybrids and an advanced electric vehicle push. "Our hope and expectation is that this is anything but the end," Mesnikoff said.