The auto industry is finally getting traction on its quest to make 95 RON octane gasoline -- basically the same grade as Europe’s regular and the lowest grade of premium here -- the new regular in the United States.
In testimony Friday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's environment subcommittee, Dan Nicholson, General Motors' vice president of global propulsion systems, said making 95 octane the new regular aligns the U.S. with Europe and is one of the most affordable ways to boost fuel economy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
GM, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, working with the United States Council for Automotive Research, are seeking just one grade of fuel: 95. That would eliminate today's grades, generally 87 octane for regular, 88-90 for midgrade and 91-94 for premium. Even though premium gasoline costs about 50 cents more per gallon than regular, Nicholson says moving to 95 octane would cost consumers far less.
GM spokesman Tom Read said late Tuesday that current grades of octane would be phased out over time and there still will be gasoline with octane ratings higher than 95 RON -- sort of a super premium.
Speaking during a panel discussion at SAE International WCX World Congress Experience in Detroit the day before testifying before the house subcommittee, Nicholson said a 3 percent fuel economy improvement could be attained for less than a 3 percent increase in the cost of fuel.
"This will have customer value if it is done correctly. Don't think of the premium fuel that is available today," Nicholson said. "If it is done in the right framework, it could have a lot of value for customers at a low rate if we pick the right octane level. If you go too high, it'll get expensive. But if you pick the right one, it'll actually work for customers. They can get around 3 percent fuel economy improvement for less than 3 percent" cost.
A 3 percent fuel economy improvement might not sound like much, but engineers struggle for every tenth of a percent gain as they design, engineer, test and calibrate vehicles.
"Fuels and engines have always been a system. That's how you have to think about it. I think America deserves as good a gasoline as Europe," Nicholson said.
Technologies such as downsized turbocharged, direct-injected engines -- Ford's EcoBoost line, for example -- stop-start systems, lightweight vehicle bodies and transmissions with eight, nine and even 10 speeds have boosted fuel economy.
But moving the fuel economy needle now is very expensive. For example, Nissan Motor Co.'s new VC-Turbo (variable compression turbocharged) four-cylinder costs at least $3,000 more to produce than a standard 16-valve double-overhead-camshaft four-cylinder. The new engine, available in the 2019 Infiniti QX50, delivers about 20 percent better fuel economy than the engine it replaced.
Some of the cost savings from switching to 95 octane gasoline presumably would come from refiners gaining efficiencies from producing high volumes of one fuel for the U.S. Nicholson told me that it doesn't matter how the petroleum industry raises octane. Octane can be increased in several ways, such as by using more ethanol or by reducing heptane.
David Filipe, vice president of Ford's powertrain engineering, appearing on the panel with Nicholson, said 95 octane fuel must be affordable. "That's been something that has been important to us. How do we do this without having a big impact on the customer?," Filipe said. "We don't want to put the burden onto the customer." Filipe said the cost must not add more than 5 cents per gallon.
Higher octane enables engineers to raise an engine's compression ratio. That, in turn, increases horsepower and torque and helps the engine run more efficiently. Raising an engine's compression may be the most cost-effective -- and untapped -- way to improve fuel economy and lower carbon dioxide emissions. Increasing compression usually requires a modification to the pistons or the cylinder head's combustion chambers.
"We have an opportunity to play a large role in offering consumers the most affordable option for fuel economy improvement and greenhouse gas reduction," Nicholson testified. "We believe a higher efficiency gasoline solution with a higher Research Octane Number (RON) is very important to achieving this. USCAR research shows that 95 RON makes sense from the viewpoints of both refiners and fuel retailers."