A debate taking place in the highest levels of government may decide the fate of the automobile industry. No, cars won't be removed from the market, rather the types of cars we drive may soon be determined by advisers to the Obama administration who are pushing for a 62 mpg fleet wide average by 2015. That means in just over a decade the average vehicle sold by manufacturers must approach that number or at least manufacturers must have a large supply of fuel efficient vehicles to offset heavier pickup trucks, crossovers and traditional gas powered cars.
The Obama administration is pushing the higher fuel economy numbers for two reasons: to reduce America's dependency on foreign fuel and to reduce tailpipe emissions, the latter being blamed for climate change. The two approaches are exclusive of each other, but as federal regulators tackle one area, they'll take on the other.
Getting to 62 mpg seems like a tall order, given that only a handful of electric cars surpass that number. But, we're talking about fleet averages which means car companies can still see larger pickup trucks getting 25 mpg as long as they also sell enough small cars getting much higher gas mileage to offset the lower numbers. One way that automakers will begin to meet federal goals is by using hybrids, perhaps the easiest and most cost effective way to raise overall corporate average fleet economy.
Granted, no conventional hybrid on the market at the moment gets anywhere near 62 mpg. Close, but still far off is the Toyota Prius which is rated at 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway. However, there is one unconventional hybrid that already meets the fed's proposed requirements and that is the Chevrolet Volt. Powered by a lithium-ion battery pack and offering a supplemental 1.4-liter gas engine, the Volt gets the equivalent of 93 mpg in electric-only mode. That range is just 35 miles before the gas engine must kick in, but it seems likely the federal government will account for these differences when favoring a car such as the Volt.
Another way automakers will squeeze more miles out of every gallon is to come up with different hybrid options. GM will be doing just that this fall when several models equipped with eAssist will roll out. The Buick LaCrosse, for example, will employ this technology, enjoying a 25 percent boost in fuel economy for a large car that is expected to be rated at 25 mpg city, 37 mpg highway. This "mild hybrid" will utilize belt / starter / alternator technology to "hybridize" this vehicle and allow it to enjoy improved fuel economy.
Certainly, the Buick system falls far short of future 62 mpg plans, but it is a step in the right direction. Other hybridization options being explored include pairing diesel and electric power together to deliver exceptionally high fuel mileage. Even without a hybrid, an upcoming Ford Focus is expected to get 80 mpg in Europe, utilizing straight diesel power and nothing else.