• Apr 17, 2008
This is what we call SAE week in Detroit. It's when automotive engineers from all over the world get together here to share their ideas on the burning engineering issues of the day. And there's no question that boosting fuel economy and reducing CO2 topped the agenda.
I can't pretend to say I learned everything being discussed at the Society of Automotive Engineers show. This thing goes on for days, has hundreds of technical presentations, all kinds of company exhibits, and is attended by something like 30,000 engineers from almost every continent. But I did manage to pick up some interesting tidbits.

John McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit". Every week he brings his unique insights as an auto industry insider to Autoblog readers. Follow the jump to continue reading this week's editorial.

First off, there seems to be a growing consensus that hydrogen and fuel cell cars are slipping down the priority list for most automakers. At least for the short term. The problem is an acute shortage of engineers. In fact, I'm told there are not enough engineers to work on all the hybrids the car companies plan to come out with in the next decade. So that means they'll have to cut back on their hydrogen programs to free up engineering talent.

The Europeans are kind of miffed that the United States is not pursuing diesel technology more intently. They've invested heavily in diesel technology and would like to see us rely on them as partners, instead of relying on the Japanese. The Europeans claim they can do a better job of reducing CO2 with diesels than hybrids can, and at a lower cost.

The next generation of diesels in Europe will have an average displacement of only 1.5 liters, versus an average of about 2-liters today. But they'll have plenty of power thanks to aggressive turbo charging strategies. And many of them will be what they call micro-hybrids which use simple stop-start technology. Indeed, the Europeans claim that within a decade they'll have millions more micro-hybrids than either the U.S. or Japan.

One of the barriers that could hurt diesel sales in the U.S. is the lower refining capacity we have for diesel fuel compared to gasoline. That's one reason why diesel is currently priced so much higher than gasoline. But it turns out that heating oil is very close to diesel and it would be easy for existing refineries to produce a lot more diesel if they didn't have to make heating oil. In fact, the ratio is one-third diesel to two-thirds heating oil, so the U.S. could easily double diesel fuel production-provided we can get homes and businesses that use heating oil to switch to natural gas.

And speaking of natural gas, it just doesn't seem to be going anywhere when it comes to fueling cars. Though it burns extremely clean and is readily abundant, no automakers are factoring it heavily into their future plans. Though there are some places in the world where it's mandated for taxis and busses, it has never caught on with the public despite generous tax incentives to use it.

Even though diesels and hybrids seem to be getting all the attention, don't count the gasoline internal combustion engine (ICE) out just yet. There are all kinds of technologies coming that will make it a lot more efficient. And while those technologies will cost more, they'll still be cheaper than the other two major alternatives. The rule of thumb being discussed in the industry is that it takes about $4,000 to get a diesel to meet U.S. emission standards, and it takes about $6,000 to convert a car to a strong hybrid. But as an engineer told me, "Let me add just $1,000 to my gasoline ICE and I'll show you what I can do to boost fuel economy."

The vibe from the SAE show demonstrates that the auto industry is excited by the technological challengers it faces in the next decade. The sales and marketing people may be worried about a slumping market. The executives and finance staffs may be worried about how they'll be able to pay all the bills. But as far as the engineers are concerned, this is probably the best time in the last half-century to be involved in designing and developing new cars.



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  • 11 Comments
      • 6 Years Ago
      If you're interested in listening to Larry Burns' keynote address from the NHA conference, you can listen to it here: http://www.gmnext.com/Podcasts.aspx

      There's also a two-part discussion on fuel cells you can check out: http://www.gmnext.com/details/thoughts.aspx?id=a6ec4b9c-cfbc-4232-9026-afe99717142a
      • 6 Years Ago
      Interesting article on the annual meeting on Society of Automotive Engineers...

      I would agree, the DARPA Urban Challenge has attracted and hosted some of the world's talented engineers-designers...

      As the automotive industry begins to pursue more economical-cleaner-alternative fuels...these new developments and technological automotive advancements will change the way we travel.

      I believe conference(s) such as these are a great way to test new approaches in Science Concepts.

      I was at the gas station (a mid-size town) yesterday evening refueling and I notice an interesting trend(s)...long lines of customers waiting to refuel also.

      As the world's populations continue to grow and cities across the region-country continue to expand...our driving/road environments will shift and become more congested.

      I think there are some concerns among travelers to scientist about too many vehicles on today's roads.

      For instance; some countries have fewer vehicles, cities have excellent public transportation systems-subways, bullet trains and etc.

      Do you think larger cities with population growth need to consider investing in new civil projects? Is it safer for citizens-travelers? Why or why not?







      • 6 Years Ago
      Motorman, not to worry. Our esteemed elected officials will not be denied their tax revenue no matter what. Even if you cannot afford to drive anywhere they will find a way to tax you for the trip not taken.
      • 6 Years Ago
      The SAE show has been dead since 2002. Focus on Bibendum, DARPA and First Robotics to find the real talent.

      SAE has become a third tier trade show and a job fair.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Electric wasnt even mentioned, which I believe is currently the best next gen fuel. Along with on board range extenders, they will be pretty much perfect. I think automakers need to take a good look at electricity because it pretty much is the future of efficient fast cars. As much as people love hydrogen cars, I just dont see it being as great as electric cars. You cant ignore that instant torque and the simplicity of the cars. With even more development, quick charges will be a thing of the present, and the downfalls of electric cars will disappear.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Its alot easier to maintain a couple of smokestacks then millions of exhaust pipes. Plus the application of renewable energy sources is constantly growing.

        Im personally hoping that ultracapacitors and nano technology play a huge role in the development of electric cars.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I don't suppose you've heard of The Clean Air Act for Smokestacks? ... Me neither. Smokestacks still produce about as much harmful air as they did ten years ago, but cars produce about 95% less. -- I have a feeling we won't be seeing giant precious metal catalysts at the top of smoke stacks any time soon either.

        Oh, and as I was saying about organic fuels having a lot of potential energy... I think the true fuel of the future is electrolized glucose.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Remember, not 100% of our power comes from coal. Alot of it does, but not all. You also brought up cats and their rare metals. think about the whole process of extracting, concentrating (which involves smelting which is horrible for the environment), and then refining. All of it takes a huge toll on our environment.

        I know nothing about electrolyzed glucose but im more then willing me be schooled on it..
        • 6 Years Ago
        Also, I forgot to mention that althought it is correct that the electricity in the batteries still comes from power plans, but the overall efficiencies of the plants plus the electric vehicle still make EV's far superior when it comes to efficiency.

        When we taking Energy density into consideration, EV's are really not that bad given where we are today. If you look at hydrogen, there energy density is pretty low so we pressurize it at keep at ridiculous temperatures. I mean look at the BMW 7 for instance

        "Vacuum super-insulation for the hydrogen tank, liquid hydrogen consistently and for a long time remaining at a temperature of - 253 °Celsius, same insulating effect as with a 17-metre-thick layer of styrofoam." I also know that it is kept from 3-5 Bar or 43-73 PSI. Also hows about the fact that if you leave your tank of hydrogen while you go on a little trip, it will be gone when you get back. As a college student, this would be horrible since I only drive my car maybe once a week. Also the production of hydrogen is only about 1/4 efficient and the power to make that comes from the same electricity that could have been used in an EV. Add those inefficiencies on top of the inefficiencies of an ICE and all the driveterrain loss. The point im trying to make is that for the next gen fuels, electricity is the prime contender.