I just spent a day at Ford's proving grounds driving a number of vehicles that use Eco-boost technology, which is the centerpiece of the company's strategy to improve fuel economy. I wish I could tell you more about my driving impressions of these Fords, but all that information is embargoed for now. What I can say is that the Eco-boost technology works impressively well.

However, while the technology works well, I wonder how well Ford's strategy will work. That's because this technology does not really improve the fuel economy of an engine. It merely allows the company to use a smaller engine in place a bigger one. And sure enough, across almost the entire rev-range, an Eco-boost engine produces more torque than naturally aspirated engines that are at least one liter larger.

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.


For example, on a future F-150, Ford will offer a standard naturally aspirated 3.5L V6 or the same engine with optional Eco-boost technology. The Eco-boost version will replace the 5.4L Triton V8 and though it produces better torque and fuel economy than the V8, at best it will get the same fuel economy as the base V6.

So while Ford will have a better fuel economy average for its fleet, those customers who are purely looking for better fuel economy are going to have to keep on looking. In other words, don't expect an F-150 that gets, say, 30 mpg. Not at this stage.

And the same goes for the other vehicles that I got to drive. There was a Lincoln MKS with an optional 3.5L V6 Eco-boost in place of a V8, and a Fusion with a 1.6L Eco-boost engine in place of the 3.0L V6 2.5L four-cylinder (an Eco-boost 2.0L would replace a 3.0L V6). For customers who are not willing to trade off performance, the Eco-Boost system is a great package. But for those who are strictly after fuel economy, it doesn't do a lot. And as we all know, customers (at this snapshot in time) are screaming for fuel economy!

Eco-boost is Ford's name for using direct fuel injection and turbocharging with 6-speed DCT transmissions. A key benefit of direct injection is that it cools the charge in combustion chamber, and that in turn allows the compression ratio to be higher. Higher compression ratios, of course, translate instantly into more power and fuel economy. Typically, automakers have to lower the compression ratio with turbocharged engines to avoid detonation. Ford is running a 10:1 compression ratio in its 3.5L V6 Eco-boost engine, which is a pretty good number, especially considering that all the V engines with Eco-boost get twin turbos. And to make sure it gets long life out of the turbos, they are water cooled.

Of course, other automakers such as Audi and Mazda already use direct injection, turbocharged gas engines with 6-speeds. Even Dongfeng in China is pursuing the same technology. It just didn't occur to them to give it an ecological brand name like Ford has.

But Ford is not relying solely on Eco-boost technology to boost its fuel economy. Over the next decade it plans to trim the weight of its vehicles anywhere from 250 to 750 pounds. It will adopt electric power steering almost across the board. It will install "smart alternators" that only charge the battery when needed. It will use its own patented stop/start technology. It's going to come out with smaller cars. And all its future vehicles will be more aerodynamic.

It's a very conservative and cautious strategy, but it definitely is going to boost Ford's corporate fuel economy. Indeed, this is precisely how the company planned to meet the new 35 mpg CAFE standards for 2020. The only problem is, just weeks ago the Bush Administration suddenly and unexpectedly rushed the fuel economy standards up to 2015. On a sales-weighted basis, every automaker's car fleet will have to average 35.7 mpg by then, trucks 28.6 mpg.

Remember, all the 2010 models are already in the pipeline. It's too late to make any major changes to them. That means from 2011 to 2015 automakers will have to raise the average fuel economy of their cars by 8 mpg and their trucks by 5 mpg. In 5 years? I don't think so.

The problem the automakers face with these new CAFE standards is not a technological one. The technology is there. No, this is a customer affordability/capital investment/tooling time/mass production problem. Personally, I don't see how any of the car companies are going to do it by 2015. But that's another story for another day.

Read more about CAFE standards over at John's Journal on Autolinedetroit.tv.

###

Autoline Detroit
Airs every Sunday at 7:00AM on Speed and 10:30AM on Detroit Public Television.

Autoline Detroit Podcast
Click here to subscribe in iTunes

Last week's show: "Westward Ho"