Road to mythical 54.5 mpg not likely to change

Dave Guilford is news editor for Automotive News.

So how goes the long, steep climb to corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by the 2025 model year?

Pretty well, according to speakers at a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute conference last week. But even so, there's no guarantee that the national CAFE will ever hit that mark -- not when you factor in a new president in 2017, changing vehicle mix and volatile petroleum prices.

Actually, 54.5 mpg has always been a mythical beast. It's the estimate of where CAFE would stand by the 2025 model year, based on assumptions about vehicle mix and 4 percent annual improvement.

Ryan Keefe, an analyst at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, said a midcycle review due in 2017 could alter the path. The current 4 percent improvement curve is only firm until 2021.

But radical change seems unlikely. That's because the likelihood of large-scale, highly expensive powertrain electrification -- which might stir up considerable political heat -- seems to be receding.

Automakers have proved effective at wringing efficiencies out of internal combustion drivetrains, along with weight reduction and aerodynamics.

More electric-drive features will appear, said Gary Horvat, Denso Corp. vice president of powertrain: "Every one of the manufacturers that we talk to can't get there without some electrification."

But, he said, the push will be for "cost-effective electrification" -- of mild- and micro-hybrid systems rather than electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

Sunk cost is another reason that the current target may survive. As Michael Olechiw, director of the EPA's light vehicle and small engine center, put it: "The manufacturers are making a lot of product decisions, and they're spending billions of dollars to meet these standards."

When automakers invest that kind of money in a technology path spanning multiple product cycles, it's no small matter to change it.

Automakers like stability, even if it means pushing to hit a tough standard.

You can reach Dave Guilford at dguilford@crain.com



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