MIT Roundtable Talks Future of Auto Industry
The Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards set forth by the Obama administration has been called the single most important aspect in shaping the future of the automotive industry. It is hard to argue with that. Given our current love of speed and need for large trucks in our infrastructure, we still have a healthy thirst for fuel, which makes the CAFE industry goals of 35.5 MPG by 2016 and 54.5 MPG by 2025 an incredibly daunting task. Were it not difficult enough to reach these standards, the industry must also adhere to ever increasing safety standards. Be it increased tolerances for certain crash conditions or the market demands for inclusion of advanced safety tech, vehicles have gained weight over the last two decades. This conflict of increased MPG expectations and the added weight of required safety equipment seems like an impossible one to reconcile, but it is one that every automaker must adopt if it wishes to play ball in the automobile industry of the future.
It was this very topic that was at the heart of a roundtable discussion held last week at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology. Hosted by MIT, and the New England Motor Press Association, the 2013 NEMPA-MIT Roundtable, titled Mass vs. Efficiency: Hitting the Automotive Sweet Spot featured a panel that included esteemed engineering professors and the top automotive engineers in the business. Panelists included:
-Mike Stanton: President and CEO of Global Automakers
-David Leone: Executive Chief Engineer, GM Global Performance Luxury Cars
-Heiko Schmidt: Dept. Manager, Compact Cars, Mercedes-Benz USA
-Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz: General Manager, Volvo Monitoring & Concept Center
The discussion was emcee'd by our very own Craig Fitzgerald (top) . You know, this guy. While discussions like this may lend themselves to members of each automaker talking about how great their products are (which happened at points), there was an honest effort to discuss this issue without bias or slant. The inclusion of third-party entities such as Stanton and members of the educational realm like MIT helped reinforce this notion.
Mike Stanton (above) spent a good deal of his time essentially setting up the question for others to answer by shaping the problem. “The most confusing and fascinating issue,” said Stanton, “is to find out how to reach these goals. We believe you can reduce mass and still be safe.” Stanton went on to point out that the real goal here is to reduce greenhouse emissions, and doing so though regulating consumption fossil fuels.
Perhaps the most intriguing speaker of the day was professor Tomasz Wierzbicki (below). He has consulted in the past with BMW’s R&D dept. as to how to take weight from a vehicle. He understands the ways that we can remove weight, through more than just carbon fiber.
As the professor explained, “There is always a tradeoff between ‘safe’ and ‘light.’ Be it new aluminum alloys or magnesium extrusions.” He cited the Volkswagen XL1 for its use of aluminum extrusions, contributing to its 200 MPG capability.
Next up was David Leone (below), speaking on the efforts that GM has made in reducing the weight of the new Cadillac CTS. He shared the mantra of other speakers that, “there is no silver bullet.” Leone pointed out that the new CTS is 7% lighter than the outgoing model, but is longer, and uses several different grades of steel depending on application in the vehicle.
Leone went on to highlight the use of carbon fiber in the Corvette Stingray, as well as the advanced powertrain in the new Cadillac ELR. But as we know, the ELR is a fancy Chevy Volt, with different performance figures. What about a truly different powertrain? Like the plug-in diesel-hybrid Volvo V60 Plugin. It is perhaps one of the most fascinating new powertrains being pursued and was discussed by Volvo’s Anders Tylman-Mikiewicz (below).
The plug-in Volvo achieves 125 MPG, with a 31-mile pure-electric range. That range is enough to satisfy the commuting needs of many drivers, and those numbers have resulted in surprising response from customers. Volvo estimated that it would sell 5,000 units throughout 2013, but has already sold out its inventory for this year, suggesting that buyers are ready to pay a premium for such technology. (It runs £48775 in the UK, translating in to a US price of nearly $75,000). Volvo has said that it will produce 10,000 units in 2014, which doubles the entire market for performance wagons.
Does it show a true adoption of a new technology? A market that is willing to accept a novel new drivetrain? Or is the acceptance that one vehicle will not be the world-beating fuel-mizer that many are searching for. There are no silver bullets, but it is the considered combination of many different technologies. Combining a diesel powertrain with plug-in capabilities and a hybrid powertrain, you create the thoughtful amalgam of varying tech that can help improve fuel economy. Oh and it just happens to be on one of the safest cars on the road today. How do you like them (green) apples?