DETROIT - Depending on whom you believe, technology gains of the past 20 years have either:
- Improved economy and slashed emissions, or
- Been squandered in high-horsepower performance for heavyweight cars and trucks.
"If we look at power and performance, while fuel economy has gone up and then flat, engine power has gone up tremendously. If you look at vehicle mass, it's gone up as well, but 0-to-60 (mph) time has gone down," said Larry Nitz, GM's leader of hybrid powertrain engineering.
Nitz said that emissions' "march to zero," over the same period, has been "nothing less than phenomenal."
The efficiency of cars, he said, measured in ton-miles per gallon, has improved a net 60 percent from 1975 to 2006, with a yearly increase of about 1 percent since 1980.
But David Friedman, research director of vehicles for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the auto industry has pushed technology into horsepower gains at the cost of stagnant fuel efficiency. The question, Friedman said, is whether automakers will spend the next 20 years using technology on behalf of efficiency or performance.
"Think about the question of 'Can we have high performance and fuel economy?' Is that still the question we should be asking in a world where we are facing significant crisis? Or maybe we should redefine what we mean by high performance," Friedman said.
"What if you keep performance where it is today, and dedicate the next 20 years' technology to improving fuel economy?" Friedman asked.
Introducing green technology
isn't enough, though, warned Don Whitsett, Aisin World Corp. of America's executive vice president.
"It's not enough to just do it. You have to do it in a way that the marketplace will accept," he said.
Joining in the marketplace chorus was Wolfgang Epple, BMW's vice president for hybrids. The duty of carmakers such as BMW, he said, is to present the best possible technology in a manner that makes buyers choose logical, energy-efficient solutions.
"There is a market for emotion," Epple said. "BMW's answer to this is, very simply, efficient dynamics." c
You may e-mail Tim Moran at [email protected]