At its vehicle emissions lab, EPA helps push automakers into a more fuel-abstemious future

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- In the not-too-distant future, the majority of cars in the United States may idle at zero rpm. Batteries will predict when you'll slow down and will charge up accordingly. The gears in your transmission will blend instead of shift.

And all of this will happen so subtly, you won't notice. Or gas prices will rise so high, you won't care.

It's a future that may come to pass if American light-duty vehicles manage to hit U.S. EPA's ambitious 54.5 mpg fuel economy target by 2025.

Carmakers and auto suppliers are already deploying tricks like turning off engines at stoplights and recouping energy from braking to charge batteries in some car models. These tactics have helped car manufacturers in America dramatically improve fuel economy and curb greenhouse gas emissions on average across their fleets.

Earlier this week, EPA issued a report on fuel economy trends showing that carbon emissions from cars were at record lows, while fuel economy was at a record high (ClimateWire, Oct. 9).


However, the current 30.6 mpg average is just the starting line for the 2025 54.5 mpg target, and progress slowed down this year. To meet the fuel economy goal along with emissions reduction objectives, manufacturers will have to spread fuel-saving technologies across all of their offerings. Not just fuel-sipping hybrids, but also gasoline-chugging pickup trucks and heavy, blissfully ignorant luxury cars, will have to roll up a learning curve to reach the new technologies.

At EPA's National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory (NVFEL) yesterday, automakers showcased some of their strategies to do just that.

A training gym for cars

EPA established the laboratory in 1971 to create fuel economy standards that the automotive industry could actually achieve. Regulators also make sure that cars live up to their hype, testing vehicles to make sure that lighter parts and using turbocharged engines are not just gimmicks but upgrades that yield substantial fuel savings.

The warehouse-like facility is like an elite training gym for cars. Over polished concrete and diamond plate, shiny new sedans and coupes are mounted on dynamometers -- the equivalent of treadmills for runners -- as wires from sensors and instruments spurt through gaps in bodywork.

EPA tests components individually, as well. In one room, engineers mounted the beating red heart of a hybrid medium-duty diesel truck on a concrete block, innervating it with sensors and hoses to measure its performance and pollution.

Cars and components are heated, cooled, revved up, idled, filled up and emptied to make sure the fuel economy sticker on the window resembles something an owner will see in the real world.

"When we say a car gets 24.3 miles per gallon, it gets 24.30 miles per gallon, and we're absolutely certain of that fact," said David Haugen, director of the testing and advanced technology division at EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality.

In the nearby wet labs, engineers experiment with new fuel blends and test out close to 3,500 existing formulas in new situations.

Aside from validating performance in existing cars, NVFEL also tests new approaches to cutting emissions. Photography is restricted in many parts of the lab because some manufacturers are concerned about trade secrets leaking out.

Learning to love 'stop-start'

In a large atrium, with a dozen cars parked askew with their hoods propped open, manufacturers showed some of the technologies they were willing to share, like continuously variable transmissions that ensure the perfect gear ratio is always matched to the engine's output, reducing wasted energy and saving fuel.

Alexander Dolpp, director of powertrain systems in the research and development division of Mercedes-Benz, explained that the company's S600 plug-in hybrid uses GPS and traffic information to anticipate speeding up and slowing down, tweaking its drivetrain to keep its batteries topped up or to deliver power.

The goal, he explained, is to deliver eight-cylinder performance with four-cylinder fuel economy.

General Motors Co., meanwhile, received favorable reviews for its engine stop-start system in the Chevrolet Impala sedan, which has been on the market for a year. "This is the success story for 12-volt start-stop in the U.S.," said Frederick Sciance, manager of environment and climate policy at General Motors.

Though American consumers were initially wary about their engines turning off at stop signs, Sciance said a combination of educating customers on the benefits, such as increasing fuel economy by 5 percent, while eliminating the shuddering and jolts of stopping and restarting motors helped ease acceptance.

"This diversity of innovation is not because EPA mandated it; it's happening because EPA got out of the way," said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, explaining that the agency's approach is to set targets rather than endorse a specific technology.

Incentives higher in Europe

With tough targets, the net result is that the United States can drive the global auto industry to be more efficient, McCabe observed. Addressing climate change will eventually require global cooperation, and taking the lead in fuel economy could drive other nations to act.

"The world is noticing what we are doing," she said. "They are noticing the power plant rule, and they are noticing what we are doing with vehicles."

However, fuel efficiency may still be a tougher sell in the United States than it is in regions like Western Europe, where gasoline prices begin around $7 a gallon and go up. "The reward at the pump is higher in Europe than it is in the U.S.," said Oliver Schmidt, general manager in the engineering and environmental group at Volkswagen Group of America.

Right now, though, NVFEL is gearing up to produce a progress report on the pace of technology development to make sure manufacturers are on track to hit their fuel economy and emissions targets by 2025.

"We are required by statute, by law, to do a midterm evaluation," said Dan Barba, director of the National Center for Advanced Technology at EPA. The agency expects to issue a report by November 2017.

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