54.5 mpg possible with today's technology, JCI executive says

From left: James Verrier, BorgWarner CEO; Hau Thai-Tang, Ford purchasing chief, and Brian Kesseler, Johnson Controls battery division president, speak with Automotive News Publisher and Editor Jason Stein. Photo credit: GLENN TRIEST

UPDATED: 1/16/14 9:08 am ET - Adds details

DETROIT -- Automakers can meet the 54.5 mpg CAFE target without introducing high volumes of electric cars and plug-in hybrids, said a member of the purchasing panel Wednesday at the Automotive News World Congress.

By using a mix of start-stop systems, turbochargers, direct injection and other cutting-edge technology, automakers have made big improvements in fuel economy, said Brian Kesseler, president of Johnson Controls Inc.'s battery division.

Johnson Controls has introduced a durable battery that can handle the demands of start-stop systems, Kesseler said. The Ford Fusion, which has a start-stop system, is equipped with JCI's absorbent glass mat battery.

"We can leverage existing technology to meet these regulations," Kesseler said. "Automakers don't necessarily need hybrids, EVs or plug-ins."

Kesseler's comments appeared to be an implicit endorsement of the Environmental Protection Agency's approach to fuel economy regulations.

While the EPA has set tough CAFE targets, it has not mandated the use of particular technologies. By contrast, the California Air Resources Board has mandated the introduction of zero-emission vehicles powered by electric batteries or fuel cells.

By 2025, 15 percent of new vehicles sold in California must be electric cars, plug-in hybrids or fuel-cell powered vehicles.

Automakers have had mixed results with electric vehicles, but they've had more success upgrading conventional powertrains.

One popular strategy -- to downsize engines and turbocharge them -- has delivered good results for Ford Motor Co., which has aggressively marketed its line of Ecoboost engines. Ford purchasing chief Hau Thai-Tang noted that Ford offers an Ecoboost powertrain option on 80 percent of its product lineup.

To encourage faster adoption of cutting-edge technology, Ford no longer allocates all of its product development costs to the first model that gets the technology. In the past, Ford engineers often wanted their vehicle to be the second product to get a new technology -- but not the first.

"In the past, the lead program bore the burden, but now we spread the cost through all of our programs," Thai-Tang said.

One of Ford's key suppliers of turbochargers is BorgWarner Inc. To ensure the smooth launch of Ford's Ecoboost powertrain lineup, BorgWarner's senior management met once a month with Ford's top executives.

The executives dispensed with the usual PowerPoint presentations. Instead, each company would list on a sheet of paper the problems that threatened to derail the product launch. "These meetings were brutally honest," BorgWarner CEO James Verrier said. "They were very, very intense."

The executives in the room -- about half a dozen or so -- were empowered to make decisions, Verrier said. The two companies shared more information than they normally would, and that kept the program on track.

As automakers work more closely with suppliers, they will be able to maintain the pace of innovation, Verrier predicted. "There is a lot of momentum, and we have a path to get there," he said.

You can reach David Sedgwick at dsedgwick@crain.com

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