How tough CAFE delays EV acceptance
Dave Guilford is enterprise editor of Automotive News.
As you may have noticed, the industry's enthusiasm for electric vehicles has dimmed considerably in the past year.
You could cite several reasons: election-year attacks on the Obama administration's backing of EVs, the stubborn reality of high EV prices and limited range, and the predictable glitches of any new technology.
But don't underestimate the effect of tougher federal fuel economy regulations.
Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? Logically, pushing the U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard to 54.5 mpg in the 2025 model year -- virtually doubling it in 14 years -- should boost EVs.
It's not working out that way, though. Instead, automakers are pouring their resources into improving the efficiency of internal combustion engines.
The most obvious reason for this is inertia, the tendency of the industry to find ways to use current technology rather than undertake a wrenching, expensive change.
Certainly there is ample potential to improve internal combustion powertrains. According to the Department of Energy, petrol-powered vehicles convert only 14 to 26 percent of the energy in their fuels into power that actually drives the vehicle.
That explains the popularity of technologies such as direct fuel injection, variable valve timing and turbocharging. They all make combustion more efficient.
But the pressure of the CAFE standards for steady, year-over-year improvement is also steering the industry back to internal combustion.
Big automakers make their billion-dollar powertrain bets a decade or more in advance. That means they need to have their plans in place now to meet their CAFE bogeys. Near-term, at least, automakers can't gamble on consumer acceptance of unfamiliar, expensive electrified drivetrains.
So even though most automakers continue to view EVs and plug-in hybrids as plausible long-term solutions, the imperative to meet fuel economy standards is, paradoxically, pushing them back to internal combustion. That's where they see quick, certain gains in fuel efficiency.
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