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Reality check: Lighter tow vehicles now closer than ever

We haven’t heard much lately about Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. But, the Obama administration has quietly pushed the required average of 35.5 mpg up four years from 2020 to 2016. That’s a 34 percent increase over today’s average of 26.4 mpg and it must be accomplished in 40 percent less time.

When I’ve blogged in the past about concern that lighter tow vehicles could hurt our industry, some of you commented you were sure the auto makers had time to get it done through improved engine technology. That would be ideal, of course. But I can’t seem to shake off a nagging suspicion that, ultimately, weight reduction will be the primary route. After all, that’s the logical path we’ve followed in boat building. 

For one thing, it’s reported that most of the fruit has already been picked off the tree of combustion engineering. The motor gurus say, at best, only a 15-20 percent improvement could be squeezed from existing gas engines. So, engine technology can only do some of the lifting.

Since CAFÉ means fleetwide average, some assume the new hybrids and straight electric models will be a big help in reaching the goal. Not really. The fact is, even if these vehicles triple in sales by 2016, they would still be less than 10 percent of the nation’s new cars, thus having a miniscule impact. Likewise, while diesels are reportedly 35 percent more efficient, American drivers don’t want them. Even if they suddenly did, the fuel wouldn’t likely be available at a price drivers would pay. That’s because there’s a worldwide shortage of diesel-refining capacity that would take years to overcome.

So, with only about half of the needed increase possible from engine improvements, hybrids and electric cars, the most likely road to reach the 35.5 mpg promise land will be – weight reduction. This is especially true with the new accelerated timeline.

Interestingly, according to the engineers, a 10 percent reduction in weight will kick up the efficiency by 6 percent. That means about 30 percent of a current vehicle’s weight will have to go. But, how can they do it?

Some suggest using more carbon fibers and fiberglass materials. But that’s not likely since they aren’t practical for auto mass production - to much manual labor needed. Others claim there will be an increased use of aluminum, which today accounts for about 9 percent of a vehicle. There are some luxury cars already being produced with aluminum bodies and they weigh in up to 15 percent lighter than those with steel bodies. Of course, it’s not as simple a solution as it looks -- aluminum costs up to four times more than steel.

So, while there’s no easy answer to meeting the latest deadline for the higher CAFÉ standards, reducing the weight through materials and vehicle size will have to make up at least half of the increased efficiency mandated. For many years we’ve been saying lighter, smaller vehicles will have reduced boat-towing capacity and will be less safe. Suddenly that unavoidable reality is even closer than we thought.?



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