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Cost, efficiency issues squeeze auto designers

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Cost, efficiency issues squeeze auto designers

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Detroit -- Americans may want their Motor City muscle, but global industry watchers say squeezing into smaller vehicles may be inevitable.

"Over 15 years in Europe, the fleet size has gotten smaller," said Eric Fedewa, vice president of global powertrain forecasts for CSM Worldwide in Northville, at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress conference Wednesday.

He expects the U.S. to follow Europe's lead as automakers struggle to meet government-mandated fuel efficiency ratings, and as consumers react to higher gas prices.

His company estimates that by 2015, U.S. vehicles will be equal to European and Japanese fleets in both fuel economy and emissions.

When gas prices go up, the first response is to drive less, Fedewa said. When fuel costs account for about 4 percent of total spending, experience shows, consumers opt for a smaller engine. The final step is a smaller vehicle altogether, because the payoff period is shorter than buying a hybrid.

"We can make cars people drive efficient, but adding the necessary technology will make them very expensive," Fedewa said. That is why, globally, people are going for smaller vehicles.

But John Juriga, director of powertrain for the Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center, thinks consumers can have their cake and eat it, too.

A successful vehicle doesn't make the customer choose between value, quality, safety and fuel efficiency, he said.

All those factors must be addressed through vehicle design and Juriga said it's possible, though a challenge, to build an efficient, larger vehicle that meets new regulations.

The technology exists, he said, including ways to reduce vehicle friction, drag and weight, as well as smart alternators and recharging and electrification options.

The bottom line: Technologies must be more affordable because consumers will have less, not more, to spend on vehicles in the future, said Roger Clark, senior manager of General Motor Co.'s Energy Center.

Even before the latest economic downturn, "bigger and brawnier was already playing itself out," said John DeCicco, a lecturer on Transportation Energy and Climate Policy at the University of Michigan. "We won't go back again," he predicted, in a policy environment that will be relentless in the future.

The other raging debate is how best to pursue the myriad of propulsion options on the horizon -- from gasoline and diesel engines to hybrids, electric cars and fuel cells as well as ethanol, methanol, natural gas and synthetic fuels.

"There are too many solutions to choose from and they all cost money," Juriga said.

Clark agrees: "We don't even have people to work on all that."

Since no one knows for sure which options will be most viable, GM's strategy is to concentrate resources on core technologies, with smaller groups working on alternatives to hedge those bets.

For now, in the U.S., the gas engine remains king, Fedewa said, followed by electric vehicles.

In Europe, government policies, including taxes and , led to widespread adoption of diesels because the fuel is 20 percent cheaper than gas. But in the United States, diesel fuel costs 10 percent more than gasoline, Clark said.

Automakers are "squeezed in the middle of policy initiatives and the need to make money," Fedewa said.

From The Detroit News:


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