When gasoline prices blew past $3 a gallon last week, the highest level in 26 months, it was tough news for consumers but a marketing boost for automakers trying to sell pricey new technology needed to meet tougher fuel economy rules that took effect Jan. 1.
The new era will raise fleet fuel economy standards, in annual steps, to 35.5 mpg for 2016 models, a 30 percent rise from the 27.3 mpg of the 2011 model year.
The first step is a total fleet average of 30.1 mpg for 2012 models, which officially can go on sale this week. Automakers already are accelerating their use of costly lightweight materials and advanced powertrains on the way to 2016.
The latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the 2010 model year show that some companies -- including Toyota, Honda, Hyundai-Kia and Mazda -- are at or above the 2012 standard and are well positioned with their product mix.
For others below the 2012 standard -- such as Chrysler, BMW, Daimler and Porsche -- the requirements will mean an acceleration of steps to slash weight, shuffle products and shrink powertrains.
Those changes don't come cheap. And when gasoline prices are low, the pricey technology is a tough sell.
Transitioning to the new standards is "a tough task, but we're facing it as grown-ups," said Rick Spina, who leads development of full-sized trucks for General Motors Co.
Spina said GM plans to trim 500 pounds from its light trucks by 2016, and by the early 2020s, might need to cut as much as 1,000 pounds per truck.
"We're going to do everything we can to keep the customer from realizing we've had to make changes in a fundamental way," Spina said.
The industry will meet the CAFE challenge with some sophisticated technology: eight-speed automatic transmissions, variable valve timing, electric power steering, stop-start systems, turbochargers, direct injection, hybrid systems and diesels, primarily in light trucks. The technologies are migrating into smaller segments, and smaller engines are moving into larger vehicles.
For 2016 models, the standard for cars rises to 39.5 mpg. But the light-trucks standard for 2016 models -- 29.8 mpg -- will be the greatest challenge. Automakers are scrambling to strip hundreds of pounds from future pickups without sacrificing strength or towing capability.
Ford, like GM, has only one design cycle to make significant changes to its pickup line. And Ford is working quickly to revamp its engine and model offerings.
Next month, Ford will launch a turbocharged engine in the F-150 alongside the recently introduced, naturally aspirated 3.7-liter V-6. 5.0- and 6.2-liter V-8 gasoline engines. Ford says the F-150's turbo, based on the 3.5-liter, V-6 direct injection turbo engine in the Ford Taurus SHO sedan, will still meet truck durability requirements.
Overall, Ford says, fuel economy will improve 20 percent across the F-150 range.
Ford says it will offer EcoBoost turbocharged engines with direct injection on 90 percent of its North American cars and trucks within a couple of years.
Ford will offer four-cylinder EcoBoost engines on smaller vehicles such as the Focus ST, due in 2012. In addition, the 2011 Explorer initially has two engines available, a normally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6 and the new 2.0-liter EcoBoost inline four-cylinder engine. Each of the engines is expected to provide a 30 percent boost in fuel economy over the outgoing body-on-frame Explorers.
Here are other ways automakers are improving fuel efficiency to get to the 2012-model requirements of 25.7 mpg for light trucks, 33.8 mpg for cars and 30.1 mpg for fleets. NHTSA's fuel-economy figures for the 2010 model year indicate how far they have to go.