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Fuel economy standards pose significant challenges for industry, says auto expert

Dramatic increases to the government imposed fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks in the U.S. may decrease the auto industry’s carbon foot print but pose some serious challenges for vehicle and component part manufacturers and the engineers who support them, according to Peter Frise.

“Fuel economy is going to have to improve 40 per cent from 2010 levels by 2016,” said Dr. Frise, the scientific director of the AUTO21 Network of Centres of Excellence. “This is creating profound challenges for the industry.”

Peter Frise

Peter Frise.

A keynote speaker at the upcoming annual conference of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, Frise said his lecture will focus largely on rigorous Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and how researchers are working with auto manufacturers to ensure they’ll be able to meet them.

Enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1975, CAFE standards are a way for the government to force the industry to improve fuel economy for vehicles and reduce emissions.  By 2016, Frise said the average economy standard for vehicles will be 35 miles per gallon and by 2025 it could be as high as 54 mpg. The current average is about 25 mpg, he said.

The challenge for manufacturers will be to build lighter, more fuel-efficient cars that meet safety requirements and still have all the energy-needy occupant comfort “hotel items” consumers demand – and all at a competitive price, Frise said.

“It’s a huge change,” he said.

Headquartered at the University of Windsor and with an annual budget of $11 million split between the federal government and the auto industry, AUTO21 is a research network that brings together almost 200 top scientists and engineers at 46 universities, pairing them with 110 industry and government partners. It currently supports 46 research projects exploring issues that range from consumer education in the use of safety devices, to new or improved processes for design, materials and manufacturing, to advanced fuel research.

Many of those researchers are working specifically on methods of reducing the overall weight of vehicles and producing materials that exceed current vehicle performance requirements for crash worthiness, handling and safety, structural integrity and durability, and noise, vibration and harshness, Frise said.

“By having a deep understanding of how the industry works we’ve shaped our research program to respond to its needs,” he said.

An economic impact study of selected AUTO21 projects conducted by the Center for Automotive Research found that the network generated more than $1.1 billion in economic and social benefits for Canadians, with an estimated 12-to-1 return on the $90.5 million in R&D money its private and public partners have invested since 2001. Some of those benefits include the prevention of loss of life, injury and personal damages; fuel savings; industrial process improvements; and, job creation and retention.

Frise said he’ll also address the subject of vehicle life-cycle analysis and some of the misconceptions some people have about hybrid and electric vehicle technology and its ability to provide a totally clean alternative to traditional combustion engines.

“There is no technology that doesn’t have an impact,” he said. “If you want to do anything, there is a cost and that’s why life-cycle analysis is so important.”

Frise will deliver his keynote address at Winclare A, Vanier Hall, on June 4 at 9:15 a.m.

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