Thought I answered that question a couple columns ago. There is no need to ask automakers why they can't do simple, cheap, 50-plus-mpg conventional (non-hybrid) cars today – even though some did decades ago – when you already know the answer. The fact is that federal safety, damageability and emissions regulations – on top of customer demand for full loads of comfort, convenience and infotainment features even in small, relatively inexpensive models – has made modern cars way too heavy to manage more than low-40s-mpg EPA highway and mid-30s average real-world efficiency, at least with current technology.
That will have to change, since corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) mandates are scheduled to ramp up relentlessly over the next 13 years. But while those 50-plus-mpg (average) cars of the future may be small, they will not be able to sacrifice safety or widely popular features (in fact, they'll need more of both) so will be far from simple or inexpensive. The old racing axiom – "Speed costs money; how fast can you afford to go?" – is equally applicable to fuel economy: "Efficiency costs money; how fuel efficient can we afford to be?"
So this time we put our CAFE-related questions to some key GM leaders responsible for marketing and design, starting with Chevrolet marketing director Russ Clark. "Cars are developed for people's wants and needs," Clark said, "and whether they want a sports car or an SUV, one objective for all is better fuel economy. The technology does add to the cost, but they'll save some money on fuel."
How much of GM's CAFE-compliance challenge will fall to Chevrolet? "We have the widest portfolio within GM, so we will need to develop as many new small cars as we can, and make sure they're all good. We'll also need to continually develop technology, and that is where the cost will come."
Does he see much future for diesel in this country? "The Spark is great in the city; a diesel is great cross-country. The negatives on diesel in this country are the high cost of emissions compliance, and we don't have the fuel price advantage they have in Europe."
The negatives on diesel are the high cost of emissions compliance, and we don't have the fuel price advantage they have in Europe.
On the other end of GM's brand spectrum, we asked Cadillac marketing vice president Don Butler whether CAFE compliance will be less challenging for Cadillac than for Chevy due to higher prices and lower volumes. "Chevy will have to do the lion's share of the work for GM, but there are different kinds of challenges for Cadillac," Butler responded. "We'll have targets for each architecture and model."
Then we asked Chevrolet Corvette marketing manager Harlan Charles how CAFE compliance will affect America's favorite two-seater. "First," Charles responded," the Corvette is already very good [given its performance] at 26 mpg highway, and the things we will do to make it a better sports car – lightweight materials, aerodynamics, efficiency technologies – also help its fuel economy. I can't talk yet about the next generation, but we do have technologies – engine, transmission, lightweight materials – that will improve its efficiency."
We asked whether we might see electrification in future Corvettes. "I wouldn't rule it out, but we're not working on that today. We're seeing other people doing it, but it adds a lot of weight and cost. We want to keep the Corvette as close as we can to a street version of our racing cars, and part of that is keeping it light and nimble. Because some fuel economy technologies actually add a lot of weight, that is a challenge.
"The Corvette is a crown jewel of the company," he continued. "We're about to celebrate 60 years of Corvette, and people point to it as proof that the U.S. industry can do a true world-class car, so we'll do everything we can to keep that legacy going. Corvette customers buy the car for performance, and no one is raising their hands for less performance. But we'll use all the technologies it takes to meet those fuel-economy requirements."
Corvette customers buy the car for performance, and no one is raising their hands for less performance.
Finally, we asked Clay Dean, GM's visionary design director responsible for both Advanced Design and Cadillac, and how automakers will be able to design smaller, lighter, ultra-aerodynamic cars to meet CAFE without resorting to tiny, unappealing jellybeans. "Number one, we know what we have to do and are committed to doing it," he responded. "The reality is that for cars to get the right fuel economy, we'll have to keep shrinking and shrinking them. But as I look around, people aren't getting any smaller, and people will actually have to buy them. If people don't buy them, we won't get the required fuel-economy numbers.
"We have multiple vehicle strategies, and everything will add cost. CAFE's goals are to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and improve air quality, and one way to achieve them is to make all cars smaller. But what if we could blend some of that with a robust, strategic urban mobility strategy that helps to address crowding in the cities and on the roads, and the lack of maneuverability in every major city in America. For example, in Los Angeles by 2020, the average speed is forecast to be about seven miles per hour. People and companies are leaving that city because they can't do business there, and the city has said it can't build any more roads.
"So as a company, we have to contribute to the solution. If we can solve that problem, we'll reduce the number of automobiles on the road to increase flexibility and mobility as well as the amount of petroleum, or energy, that we're using. If that means creating new devices for mobility, that could solve this issue and be new business for General Motors."
How can designers continue to create appealing vehicles as they get smaller and more aerodynamic? "That is a very big challenge," Dean said. "Car design relies heavily on appearance, a huge driver to the buying public, and designers like to have freedom. So when we tell them it needs to be this long, this tall and this narrow, it can be challenging. But designers need to be problem solvers. Once we're given a box to work within, the key is how to make something intriguing, engaging and functional within that box. Customers may have to give up some things, but they won't want to once they have had all the luxury and features."
Which brings us back to TxPatriot's question: What will new-car buyers be willing to give up?
Which brings us back to TxPatriot's question: What will new-car buyers accustomed to full-featured cars and trucks be willing to give up to reduce vehicle weight to increase fuel economy... and what will they be willing to pay for federally mandated high-efficiency vehicles?