DETROIT—The last time the federal government passed legislation aimed at raising fuel economy standards—and lowering greenhouse gas emissions—auto makers met the challenge by taking pistons out of engines, putting more gears in transmissions, adding turbos, deploying stop-start systems, applying cylinder deactivation and using other tricks of the powertrain trade.
That's not going to happen again in these, the waning days of the internal combustion engine.
The best path, experts say, to meeting the Biden administration's proposed new fuel economy and emissions regulations that call for fleetwide economy to meet a real-world average of 38.2 mpg by 2026: hybrids—mild, full, plug-ins—all steps toward battery-powered vehicles.
"It's going to be all about electrification. The market is just not interested in downsized vehicles. As for lightweighting, short of adopting exotic materials, such as carbon fiber, there is not much further auto makers can go with that," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights. "You are really left with electrification as the only viable option," he added.
According to AlixPartners, cumulative investments in battery-electric vehicles by the world's auto makers total $330 billion through 2025. The firm projects EV sales will rise to about 25 percent in the U.S. from about 2 percent now.
But the shift to EVs doesn't tell the whole story of how auto makers will meet the new fuel economy and emissions rules in the interim. Converting the fleet to electric power is less like a switch and more like a dial. For instance, there is no full-size pickup or SUV—cash cows for many auto makers—sitting in showrooms today that delivers anywhere close to the Biden administration's proposed fuel economy targets.
With the proposed tightening of fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions regulations beginning in 2023, most auto makers will rely on two strategies to meet the new rules: They'll pair the gasoline engine with an electric motor and launch more hybrids, and they'll take advantage of the EPA's system of averaging, banking and trading credits earned from meeting clean-air standards. Biden's proposed rules, for example, leave in place loopholes, such as credits auto makers can claim for installing certain types of air conditioning equipment.
"Every combustion engine is going to be hybridized at some point in the next decade," said Lindsay Brooke, editor in chief at SAE International. Brooke, who oversees publication of the technical papers presented by powertrain engineers and moderates SAE's popular powertrain panel at the organization's yearly conference, said another way engines will become more fuel efficient is by continuous small but affordable gains to existing engine and transmission technologies.
Upgrades to valve actuation systems and high-pressure fuel injection components, for example, that led to fuel economy gains in the Obama era will resume. That notion jibes with what at least one supplier of engine parts expects during the Biden years. Stanadyne, a Connecticut manufacturer of fuel system components such as pumps and injectors, isn't scaling back its R&D budget. The company is spending more to develop technologies that increase the efficiency of internal combustion engines.
"To get the full benefit of electrifying the engine, you need to optimize it. It isn't being asked to do the same things," John Pinson, Stanadyne president, told Automotive News.
"As I look at what we can do today to improve overall vehicle performance, efficiency, utility and environmental friendliness, that is to make today's internal combustion engine better. It is the easiest and fastest thing you can do. The investments are manageable and the benefits would be tremendous."
There hasn't been much blowback from auto makers about the new fuel economy and emissions standards for a couple of reasons.
First, investments already made to improve powertrain efficiency are still viable, and some are still arriving, the EPA points out in its proposed new rules: "The technological achievements already developed and applied to vehicles within the current new-vehicle fleet will enable the industry to achieve the proposed standards even without the development of new technologies beyond those already widely available."
Toyota, for example, is expanding availability of its Dynamic Force 2.0-liter engine in the Corolla compact sedan to the Corolla Cross crossover that is launching this summer. That engine, which boasts two fuel injection systems, electronic controls for the water and oil pumps and other advanced technologies, achieves an industry-leading 40 percent thermal efficiency rating.
That helps the Corolla hatchback reach an EPA-rated 41 mpg highway. The Corolla Cross carries a combined 32 mpg rating. Both vehicles—along with the Camry hybrid that gets fuel economy ratings in the 50s—will help offset the negative impact of Toyota's sales of Tundras and Sequoias, the Lexus LX and its other big vehicles.
Also, auto makers that oppose California's ability to set its own emissions standards abandoned that fight after the November presidential election.
With many auto makers pledging to go all-electric by the middle of next decade—or sooner—this generation of gasoline engines will likely be their last. But most of today's engines can be mated to electric motors to create hybrid powertrains without major redesigns.
The diesel engine, which helped auto makers meet previous fuel economy standards, is a nonstarter. Just three are being deployed in North America for the 2022 model year, and they will be in a small number of General Motors and Stellantis trucks.
At Ford Motor Co., the plan is to lean on hybrids and plug-in hybrids until BEVs begin selling in high enough volumes to replace internal combustion engines. The company views hybrids as necessary—at least in the midterm. Ford has launched a hybrid version of the F-150 pickup and will offer a battery-electric version next year.
GM is taking a different route to meet the tougher standards. The auto maker, which aims to lead the switch to EVs, ditched hybrids when it ended production of the Chevrolet Volt in early 2019. It is investing $35 billion through 2025 in at least 30 electric vehicles and two battery plants.
If it does reintroduce a hybrid powertrain, it might be in the Chevrolet Corvette. Rumors of a Corvette E-Ray have been reported by enthusiast magazines.
Stellantis has added hybrid powertrains to such vehicles as the Ram pickup and Jeep Wrangler and plans to launch an electric Ram.
Says Brooke of SAE: "We're still looking at steel-intensive vehicles—other than Ford—and kind of steady but incremental hybridization across the fleet.
"There won't be any billion-dollar investments in new engine plants, but there will be incremental increases in fuel injection pressure and combustion chamber design and valve controls that will give you 1 or 2 percent improvement. That might be enough, depending on the fleet mix, to meet the new regulations."