Car­mak­ers seek higher fuel stan­dards

They tell Congress 91-oc­tane stan­dard would boost mpg while not sac­ri­fic­ing per­for­mance

The Detroit News - - News - BY HENRY PAYNE AND NORA NAUGHTON The Detroit News

Two weeks af­ter win­ning a vic­tory against ag­gres­sive fed­eral fuel econ­omy rules aimed at speed­ing adop­tion of elec­tri­fied ve­hi­cles, the U.S. auto in­dus­try went to Capi­tol Hill last week to press Congress for a na­tional fuel oc­tane stan­dard that would help in­crease the ef­fi­ciency of the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine.

With con­sumers re­sis­tant to ex­pen­sive, bat­tery-pow­ered cars and gas prices low, au­tomak­ers say they will have to meet fed­eral mpg stan­dards in com­ing decades with ad­vances in the gas en­gine.

Key to that progress, they say, is higher oc­tane fuel — about 91oc­tane com­pared to to­day’s 87-oc­tane pump stan­dard — which will de­liver 3-per­cent-bet­ter fuel econ­omy for an es­ti­mated 3-per­cent in­crease in cost. The stan­dard is re­ferred to by its in­ter­na­tional met­ric, 95 RON, which trans­lates to U.S. 91-oc­tane.

“We got a very good re­cep­tion in Wash­ing­ton,” Gen­eral Mo­tors Co.’s vice pres­i­dent for global propul­sion, Dan Nicholson, told The Detroit News on 910 AM Ra­dio Satur­day, one day af­ter a hear­ing be­fore the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee that in­cluded rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Detroit’s Big Three and mem­bers of the fuel in­dus­try.

“The sta­tus quo is un­ten­able,” said Nicholson, who first an­nounced the pro-95 coali­tion on be­half of the U.S. Coun­cil for Au­to­mo­tive Re­search (USCAR) at the SAE World Congress last week. “Fu­els and en­gines are a sys­tem to­gether, so 95 RON is im­por­tant. Bet­ter fuel means you can go back and re­design en­gines for bet­ter fuel ef­fi­ciency.”

Higher oc­tane makes gas more sta­ble un­der ig­ni­tion com­pres­sion — com­monly known as knock — which can dam­age in­ter­nal en­gine com­po­nents. A higher, 91-oc­tane (95 RON) stan­dard would al­low en­gi­neers to de­sign en­gines to a higher com­pres­sion ra­tio — per­haps to 15:1 over to­day’s av­er­age of 10:1 — and gain more mpg while not sac­ri­fic­ing per­for­mance.

Euro­pean na­tions like Ger­many have al­ready man­dated 95 RON gas. Cou­pled with high gas taxes and en­gine dis­place­ment fees, their goal is to make gas en­gines more ef­fi­cient.

“Amer­ica de­serves at least as good a fuel as Eu­rope has,” Nicholson told the SAE panel last week. “It will have cus­tomer value if it’s done cor­rectly. We’ve stud­ied it and we know that it’s cost-ef­fec­tive.”

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment, too, set am­bi­tious goals of 54.5 av­er­age fuel econ­omy by 2025, in part to en­cour­age au­tomak­ers to shift to­ward bat­tery power. But con­sumers mostly have not fol­lowed, and — en­cour­aged by au­tomak­ers — the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion

has agreed to re­view fed­eral mpg de­mands, even as Wash­ing­ton will con­tinue dic­tat­ing ef­fi­ciency goals.

In Wash­ing­ton, Nicholson rep­re­sented the USCAR coali­tion of au­tomak­ers that in­cludes Ford Mo­tor Co.’s David Filipe, vice pres­i­dent for pow­er­train en­gi­neer­ing, and Bob Lee, Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles NV’s chief for global pow­er­train co­or­di­na­tion. Also there were rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the fuel in­dus­try — ethanol fuel in­ter­ests, re­fin­ers, and fuel re­tail­ers — which has long re­sisted higher oc­tane stan­dards be­cause of their added costs.

The panel was a rare show of auto-oil in­dus­try brother­hood. Higher oc­tane fuel typ­i­cally fetches higher prices at the

pump. Stan­dard 87-oc­tane fuel cur­rently av­er­ages $2.71, with premium fu­els an­other 50 cents above that at $3.23 a gal­lon.

Nicholson said that the high cost of premium fuel to­day, how­ever, is mis­lead­ing since it is “sold as a niche prod­uct.” If 91-oc­tane were adopted as the na­tional stan­dard, the price in­crease would not be sig­nif­i­cant while de­liv­er­ing con­sumers bet­ter mpg in re­turn.

“(The 95 RON stan­dard) is the most ef­fec­tive way we can im­prove fuel econ­omy — which is why we are fight­ing for it,” Nicholson told The News.

But David Cole, chair­man emer­i­tus of the Ann Ar­bor-based Cen­ter for Au­to­mo­tive Re­search, says it might not be that sim­ple.

“One of the things that is re­ally un­cer­tain is the eco­nom­ics of this whole ef­fort,” Cole said. “You could achieve a bet­ter fuel econ­omy, but whether it’s go­ing

to be enough with the cost in­crease of the fuel is a ques­tion. The eco­nom­ics as pro­jected through the con­sumer is a re­ally big deal.”

U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illi­nois, on the House panel Fri­day, called the ef­fort to change to 95 RON a “ma­jor un­der­tak­ing.”

“For one thing, we must deal with the prover­bial chicken and egg co­nun­drum — we can’t ex­pect re­fin­ers and gas sta­tions to in­vest in a new fuel un­less they know that cars will be man­u­fac­tured that will run on it, and au­tomak­ers don’t want to com­mit to the new en­gines un­til they know that the fuel will be widely avail­able,” he said. “Sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment dol­lars and a great many jobs may be at stake.”

Nicholson said ef­forts to in­crease fuel ef­fi­ciency by re-en­gi­neer­ing gas en­gines — such as Nis­san Mo­tor Co.’s in­tro­duc­tion this year of a vari­able-com­pres­sion

en­gines in its Altima sedan — are much more ex­pen­sive so­lu­tions than sim­ply rais­ing com­pres­sion lev­els in synch with higher-oc­tane fu­els.

“If we’re go­ing to move for­ward with keep­ing in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines vi­able then we have to have im­proved fu­els,” said Nicholson, un­til such time as the con­sumer mar­ket em­braces elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. Bat­tery-pow­ered cars have been dogged by high costs, a spotty charg­ing in­fras­truc­ture and fears of more lim­ited range.

“The in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gine is not dead yet, and it’s very im­por­tant as we march to­wards zero emis­sions that we make sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in the ef­fi­ciency of in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines,” Nicholson said. “We’re now in peace­ful co­ex­is­tence with elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. We’re work­ing on both. There’s no rea­son not to work on both.”

For­mer GM Vice Chair­man Bob Lutz,

who is not part of the auto-oil con­sor­tium, said the tim­ing is right for a 91-oc­tane stan­dard given the low cost of fuel and con­tin­ued de­mand for gas en­gines.

“Right now elec­tric cars make no com­mon sense,” he said. “They need fed­eral sub­si­dies to be sold. Ev­ery­thing about them is ar­ti­fi­cially stim­u­lated un­der the as­sump­tion we are run­ning out of oil. But we’re not go­ing to run out of oil.”

Nicholson said that the House En­ergy com­mit­tee, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore­gon, was en­cour­ag­ing of the idea but that key de­tails would still need to worked out. He said Cal­i­for­nia, which cur­rently only al­lows 91-grade premium fuel, would need to sign on to the na­tional stan­dard. And the stan­dard would have to be phased in over time.

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