Gentlemen: Stop Your Engines

Technology that stops the engine at redlights gaining foothold to increase fuel economy

The 2012 Kia Rio, a completely new vehicle unveiled last week at the 2011 New York Auto Show, has more to boast about than its sculpted tiger grill: the appearance of its ISG (idle-stop-go) technology as the latest mechanism to save gas. The system, which shuts down the engine at stop-lights and when a car is idling, is already popular in Europe and is taking hold in the U.S.

Cars like the Rio that use start-stop technology are programmed to shut the engine down completely when the car stops for longer than a few seconds, such as at a stop-light or stop sign. Instead of burning gas while idling, the engine remains off until the driver releases his foot from the brake pedal. The system is safe, has proved reliable and is part of how full-hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius work.

In Europe, where strict fuel economy and tailpipe emissions laws have long been established, this start-stop technology has been a fixture on the road for several years. In fact, it can increase the fuel economy of a vehicle by as much as 10%.

Stop-Start Technology can add up to 10% to fuel economy
Research and consulting firm Strategy Analytics estimates that in 2010 14% of vehicles produced in Europe used start-stop and predicts 64% of vehicles produced in Europe in 2017 will have the feature. It is likely that most automakers will standardize these so-called "micro hybrid" systems in cars with smaller engines, such as three and four cylinders, by 2016-2017.

Because the systems are relatively inexpensive and undeniably save gas and money, close to 100% of vehicles manufactured in Europe will have start-stop systems by 2020, according to industrial consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

But bringing wide-spread start-stop technology to all, or even most, cars to the U.S. has come at more of a glacial speed. Start-stop systems in the U.S. are used with hybrid vehicles (the electric motor in hybrids is used to restart the gasoline engine). The only conventionally powered (non-hybrid) vehicle to carry the technology now is the Porsche Panamera.

That's a bit ironic since most people buying the $70K-plus Porsche probably aren't too worried about saving a few bucks on gas. Rising gas prices and government fuel economy standards, though, are pushing start-stop technology down to economy cars bought by people who are saving their nickels and clipping coupons.

In addition to Kia, Ford and General Motors have announced they will be offering stop-start technology on vehicles starting in 2012. On the luxury side, BMW and Jaguar are joining Porsche.

The Ford version will feature a 12-volt battery with voltage sufficient to make certain the vehicle accessories like air conditioning and heat function normally when the engine is shut down. Additionally, there is a 12-volt enhanced starter-motor to provide easy starts once a driver removes his foot from the brake pedal.

The Kia Rio will have a starting price under $13,000 and, by contrast, will not have the electric compressor technology necessary to maintain the cooling and heating systems in the vehicle in order to keep costs down. Of course, if the ISG system detects extreme heat or cold outside, the ISG system will not initiate an engine shutdown at a stop in the first place.

"We're trying to be mindful of the fact that this buyer is really interested in price and fuel economy," said Orth Hedrick, Kia's director of product planning. "This is an ideal crossroads between those two. You eliminate the really expensive stuff but still have the benefit in an urban environment to have the engine shut off and save some fuel."

GM is also launching its eAssist branded mild hybrid system on some of its vehicles; the vehicle does not run on electric power only, as an electric motor provides some torque assist for acceleration and regenerative braking while providing start-stop functionality.

GM's eAssist will be offered on the both the 2012 Buick LaCrosse as the base engine and as an option on the Regal. The system will also be available on the new Chevrolet Malibu, which is set to debut in early 2012. GM is not marketing this system as a hybrid and does not even necessarily badge vehicles equipped with eAssist. In terms of marketing strategy to cast a wide net around a more slowly adapting consumer base, GM/Buick will offer it on the base-model LaCrosse with a starting price of $30,000.

Strategy Analytics estimates that it costs an automaker between $162 and $333 per vehicle to add these systems. A full hybrid system, such as those in the Toyota Prius or Ford Fusion, which need heavy robust batteries to propel the whole vehicle at times, drive up cost to the consumer by $3,000 to $5,000, compared with non-hybrid vehicles. The cost differential for consumers of start-stop technology cars is much more digestible.

Still, of course, people want to see quantifiable rewards on their gas tank for venturing this technology. The main roadblock in the U.S. is that the current EPA driving cycle used to rate miles per gallon does not greatly reward vehicles with start-stop systems as it includes only one full stop in the test. The Rio would normally get 30 MPG for driving in the city, but with ISG technology garners just 31 MPG -- not exactly gangbusters at first glance of the figures. However, the "real-world" savings are higher.

To quell potential consumer anxiety from this feature, almost all of these systems can be defeated by a dashboard switch operated by the consumer. As a result, dealers can allow customers to over-ride the system, but it usually has to be switched off each time the vehicle is started. That is so consumers who are initially reluctant about it can't shut it off and forget it for good.

It may take some getting used to at first, but the fact is that the systems work. Whether the U.S. consumer finds this start-stop technology a ready fuel saver or a scary new technology remains to be seen.

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