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.