Better Fuel Economy: Price of Admission at Auto Show

  • Just about every automaker has an advanced vehicle on display. Here's a "fuel cell electric" Hyundai Tuscon (photo by Mark Brush).

There was a time when fuel economy wasn’t all that important to the Big Three automakers. But now they say fuel economy has to be a major part of their new designs.

Reid Bigland heads up the Dodge brand for Chrysler. Here’s what he had to say during yesterday’s unveiling of the new, 40 mile per gallon, Dodge Dart:

“Look, the days of sacrificing horsepower for fuel economy, and vice versa, are long gone. Today you have to have both, and we do.”

Michigan Radio’s Mark Brush is at the North American International Auto Show and he joins me now. So Mark, what kind of cars are you seeing?

MB: The last time I was at the Auto Show, Rebecca, was around ten years ago – back then – the so-called “green” fuel efficient cars were off in a corner of the auto show – they weren’t taken too seriously.

There was one notorious stunt back in 1992 at the Auto Show. That’s when then Chrysler chief Bob Lutz smashed a Jeep Grand Cherokee through a window at the Cobo Center. So fuel efficiency wasn’t taken too seriously.

But now, just about every automaker is displaying some type of fuel efficient car.

RW: So what’s behind these changes?

MB: Well, I caught up with Gloria Berquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and I asked her that question.

“The world has changed, and we all see what a precious resource oil is, and we all see the importance of enhancing our energy security, and so car companies have responded by developing more fuel efficient technologies.”

Another big reason for the change – increased fuel efficiency standards from the federal government.

These standards had remained unchanged since 1990 for passenger cars.

They’ve just gotten bumped up for the 2011 model and the Obama Administration plans to keep bumping them up until automakers reach an average of 54 mpg by 2025.

RW: One of the problems automakers have had with fuel economy standards is they were facing the potential of three different standards…

MB: Right – one from California and many other states, one from the Environmental Protection Agency and yet another from the Department of Transportation.

So now this new proposed federal standard is one uniform standard and automakers like that.

That’s what EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told me at the auto show:
“I have no doubt as an engineer myself, that Detroit will meet that challenge and exceed it. And we are now building and designing cars that the world wants to buy.”

RW: So under the most recent proposed standard, the fleet-wide average has to come in around 54 mpg by 2025 – that’s a big increase – so what kind of cars are we going to be driving 10 or 15 years from now?


I’d assumed that they would all have to be electric or hybrids to meet these tough new standards, but when I asked David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists this question – he said gas engines will definitely still be around.

“Under these new standards, consumers will be able to choose cars of the
same size, the same performance and the same or even better safety, than
they have today. The main difference they’ll notice is they’ll be spending
thousands of dollars less on gasoline.”

And Friedman says to be more efficient, companies won’t have to use just the sexy technologies like hybrid or electric engines… but they’re things like better transmissions… more efficient gas engines, and better tires.

But Gloria Berquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers thinks a little differently – she thinks that hybrids and electric vehicles will have to be a big part of the mix to meet the 54 miles per gallon standard.

So in her mind, the big challenge will be will people buy these cars in the future.

RW: Well, they’re still pretty expensive.

MB: Yeah, that’s true.

RW: Thanks Mark.

MB: You’re welcome.

That’s Michigan Radio’s Mark Brush at the Detroit Auto Show.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.