It may seem like a long time until 2016, but not if you're an auto manufacturer. In just five short years, new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations will require automakers to achieve a fleetwide 35.5 miles per gallon standard.
To the average consumer, getting better fuel mileage usually means getting a smaller, less powerful car or even spending big bucks to get a hybrid or all-electric vehicle.
But big leaps in fuel economy don't happen all at once. There are lots of baby steps that, taken together, can achieve big results.
One that's capturing a lot of attention in Detroit these days is what's called “start-stop” accelerating. Very simply, it means that when you come to a full stop and keep your foot on the brake, the engine shuts down. Take your foot off the brake and it starts again.
That's what hybrids do, you say? Yes it is but there's no reason stop-start has to be restricted to hybrids, assuming you have enough faith in your car to trust it to start each time it's asked to do so.
Ford said late last month that it will start adding stop-start to nonhybrid U.S. cars and SUVs in 2012. And General Motors is introducing stop-start for the 2012-modelBuick LaCrosse. GM is calling it “e-Assist” and it's expected to spread quickly to other GM models.
As is often the case with fuel-saving techniques, stop-start is already fairly common in Europe, where gasoline is much more expensive than it is here. Even such high-end models as the Porsche Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan feature stop-start in their European models, as do the Volkswagen Passat and Golf.
Ford also uses stop-start in its hybrid-powered Escape and Fusion.
Jeff Jowett, manager of North American powertrain forecasting for IHS Automotive, a consulting firm in a Detroit suburb, told trade magazine Automotive News this week that he expects the stop-start installation rate to hit 13 percent in the U.S. By 2015 – and he predicts the European rate will leap from today's 18 percent to 65 percent in five years.
Like all fuel-saving technologies, stop-start is not cheap to build. It requires a heavy-duty battery and starter, an electric auxiliary water pump and various software and sensor upgrades. But it definitely produces results.
Ford estimates its stop-start system generates fuel savings of 4 to 10 percent, depending on driving conditions, all without affecting driving performance.