A University of Michigan researcher thinks we can triple the fuel economies in our petroleum-powered vehicles in the next 25 years. All we need to do is replace horsepower with brainpower.
John DeCicco, a lecturer at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at Michigan, isn’t bearish on alternative fuels or electric vehicles, but he argues that the most cost-effective means of reducing carbon footprints and keeping fuel prices from swallowing us whole is an evolutionary progress in the combustion engines that already make up our transportation paradigm. That means placing efficiency above power, and adopting smarter electronic systems for our automobiles.In a study published for The Energy Foundation, DeCicco identifies emerging trends within the automotive world that are already pushing buyers away from raw power and toward other amenities, like Bluetooth connectivity, on-board Internet, and other IT amenities that enhance the customer experience minus the big block V-8 engine.
As cars grow friendlier from a passenger standpoint, they should also grow smarter under the hood. For one, reduced engine size and overall mass is an easy way to increase efficiency – DiCecco's math says for every 10 percent reduction in weight, you get a 6.5 percent increase in fuel efficiency – but the inertial recovery of regenerative brakes on hybrids can push that efficiency higher. Add in an optimized powertrain and efficiency increases further.
Moreover, some concept cars have been experimenting with lightweight body materials like composites, increased aluminum and magnesium content, and carbon fibers that further reduce weight without reducing size, meaning we can keep our leggy sedans while still pushing up efficiency. Layer that with better aerodynamic designs, reduced tire drag, smarter transmissions, and leaner, lighter engine blocks – a real contributor to mass – and pretty soon you've got a smarter power source pushing 20 percent less weight (780 pounds for light fleet vehicles, or 30 pounds per year over the 25 year horizon).
Materials have to be safety rated, technologies proven, and – perhaps most importantly – customer appeal retained. But as DeCicco sees it, there's no reason why a persistently evolving suite of improvements can't hit an average fleet efficiency of 52 miles per gallon by 2025 and 74 miles per gallon by 2035.
Such technologies would allow the existing energy scheme to persist, albeit more efficiently, while nascent tech like biofuels and all-electric vehicles can come into their own at a reasonable pace (we also need time to upgrade our energy grids before shifting to an all-electric economy). Drivers would have to give up some of the get-up-and-go they’ve come to expect from generations of American muscle cars, but the savings – according to DeCicco’s models – would be vast.
For more details on how we get there from here, download a PDF of DeCicco’s study.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.