Just Can’t Get Enough

  John Eichberger |  March 26, 2019

I am a child of the 80s, a decade that has been described as one of excess. And yeah, Depeche Mode’s song, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” can be applied to so many things in my life. There are couple of interests of mine that have grown in intensity over time and, fortunately for me, they are relevant to what the Fuels Institute does. (The lyrics beyond the chorus, however, are even more of a stretch than usual for this column.)

When I'm with you baby
I go out of my head
And I just can't get enough
And I just can't get enough
All the things you do to me
And everything you said
I just can't get enough
I just can't get enough

One – I just can’t get enough data. My entire career I have used data to develop a deeper understanding of the issues I was facing and, when lobbying, I considered data as a critical element to demonstrate credibility in what we were advocating.

Two – I just can’t get enough driving enjoyment. Since I was 15 and got my learner’s permit, I have loved to be behind the wheel, and I love the power vehicles can deliver. For example, of all the vehicles I have owned (and there have been more than a few), my ultimate favorite was a 2001 Mercedes SLK-320 – black on black, 3,000 pound, 3.2-litre V-6 engine cranking out 215 horses and 229 foot pounds of torque. The coup de gras?  It was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. This two-seater, hard-top convertible carried me 175,000 miles before I got rid of it. To this day, I regret doing so. I just can’t get enough of that type of driving – so much fun.

So, imagine my excitement when I came across a new report presenting data about the performance of the U.S. light duty fleet since 1975!  I just can’t get enough of it – and now I get to share some of it with you as we look at how far vehicles have come, both in terms of performance and environmental impact. Whether you believe the industry has done enough in either category, when viewed together I cannot help but to be impressed.

And when it rains
You're shining down for me
And I just can't get enough
And I just can't get enough
Just like a rainbow
You know you set me free
And I just can't get enough
And I just can't get enough

The Data

Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) releases a report on the progress being made by automakers to satisfy their obligations, and the data presented often goes back to 1975.  This year the report is aptly titled, “The 2018 EPA Automotive Trends Report:  Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Fuel Economy, and Technology since 1975.”  The title leaves very little to the imagination.

The combination of technology to drive improved performance and reduced environmental impact is impressive and indicative of the ingenuity of the engineers who design these vehicles. As we continue to discuss methods for achieving even greater environmental improvements, I believe it is instructive to see what has been achieved to date for indications of what might be achievable in the near future.

Environmental Performance

First things first. For the last 15 years, the automobile manufacturing industry has made continuous improvement in both fuel efficiency and carbon emissions.  Fuel economy averaged 25.4 in model year 2018, up 31.6% over vehicles produced in 2004. (Per the data, 2004 model year marked the beginning of continuous improvement.) Carbon emissions averaged 348 grams per mile, down 24.5% since 2004.  Some may argue these improvements are insufficient in terms of societal objectives, but we should not discount the improvements achieved to date.

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Consumer Demand Has Shifted

As we demonstrated last year in our report, “Driving Vehicle Sales:  Utility, Affordability and Efficiency,” the fleet mix in the last two decades has changed quite a bit with crossover utility vehicles obtaining a dominant position in the market while traditional “cars” lost market share. The data from EPA further demonstrates some of these trends.

Since 2004, SUVs (incorporating both truck and car-based versions) have increased their share of production from 30% to 41.4%. Yet, EPA’s data shows that sedan/wagons continue to command 42% of the market in 2018.  Part of the difference between the Fuels Institute report and the EPA report can be explained by the definition of vehicle class. EPA classifies vehicles based upon their regulatory definition in the corporate average fuel economy program. The Fuels Institute used class designations defined by WardsAuto, which divides the market into more vehicle classes to provide greater insight into what consumers are buying. But in both data sets, the role of utility vehicles is significant.

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EPA’s data shows that each of the five categories reduced CO2 emissions and increased fuel economy, with the popular SUV classes achieving the greatest progress of all. Given their increase in market share, improvements within this class would have had a greater impact on the environmental performance of the overall market.  These achievements appear even more significant when we start to look at the performance improvements in each vehicle over the years.

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Performance

Some have suggested that the only way to achieve improved environmental performance is to drop weight. I remember being on Capitol Hill in the late 1990s and the arguments against increasing CAFE standards centered on the assumption that lighter vehicles would be inherently less safe. However, the efficiency improvements documented by EPA do not correspond with lighter vehicles.

In fact, since 1975 the weight of the average new vehicle is up 1%.  Sedans and wagons are down 13% and car SUVs are down 6%, but truck SUVs have gained 5%, minivans are up 7% and pickups have bloated 29%!  How is this possible? It seems vehicles have spent some quality time at the gym. (Maybe I should pay more attention.)

Take pickups for example. As they gained the extra weight, they also added 141% more horsepower and cut 47% off their average time to accelerate from 0 – 60 mph, all while reducing CO2 emissions and fuel consumption. The rest of the fleet followed suit. Every single class of vehicle boosted horsepower by at least 50% and dropped its 0 – 60 time by at least 37% while improving their environmental profile. What would a pro athlete give to achieve similar results?

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How did they make such dramatic improvements in performance while reducing emissions and boosting efficiency?  They loaded themselves up with technology – think of it as injecting Gatorade and Under Armour performance gear into your workout routine to give you that extra boost. Here are some notables:

  • Gasoline Direct Injection: Introduced first in 2008, within 10 years nearly 51% of new vehicles are now so equipped
  • Multi-valve Cylinders:  Debuted in 1986 and now represents 92% of new engines.
  • Variable Valve Timing: First seen in 2000, now nearly ubiquitous in 96% of new vehicles.
  • Turbo Boosters:  Nearly non-existent until the mid-1990s, now featured in 31% of new vehicles.
  • Stop-Start: Entered the market in 2012 and now 28% of the new vehicle market. 

Some have argued that the focus on horsepower and acceleration came at the expense of additional efficiency and emissions improvements. I testified before Congress a couple of years ago and one of my fellow witnesses testified that the automakers might have achieved more impressive improvements in both efficiency and emissions control had they applied benefits associated with technology to those attributes rather than directing the benefits to boost power and performance. That the focus has been towards performance is not surprising – the automakers have to deliver vehicles their customers want to buy and consumers have demanded stronger performance. The fact they were able to satisfy that demand while improving the environmental performance of their vehicles is impressive.

More is Better

In addition to engine features, automakers have made adjustments to their transmissions. The market has moved from one dominated by manual transmissions to automatics (a travesty in my opinion), and more recently continuously variable transmissions. Early in their history, automatics were less efficient than manuals, but technology advancements have closed that gap and today’s automatics are on average more efficient than the manuals they have replaced. This is largely attributable to the presence of more gears in today’s automatics. According to EPA, “generally transmissions with more speeds offer more opportunity to operate the engine in the most efficient way possible.” I learned this early on in life when I moved from my old school 10-speed bicycle to a 27-speed machine and saw my endurance, climbing ability and speed improve immediately because I could select a better gear for the conditions.

Mar2019-5.png

The average number of gears has increased from 3.5 in 1980 to 6.4 in 2018. What is more impressive to me, however, is the virtual elimination of four speed transmissions within the last 10 years and the growth of 8-speed, 9-speed and CVT transmissions to capture nearly half the market in 2018.  Clearly, transmissions play a major role in vehicle efficiency.

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Conclusion

There is so much more data available in this report, but these are the items that most struck me. More power, more technology, more gears, more miles per gallon and less CO2 – yep, I just can’t get enough.

Again, some may argue that progress has been too slow, and perhaps they are right. But I am going to look at the data from an optimistic perspective. (I know, since when do I do that?) Consider the ingenuity being applied to improve our vehicles and imagine what could be next. Electrification is growing and will play a major role, of that I have no doubt. But what else might be in store for my next vehicle and what benefits will I accrue? 

Selfishly, I hope my next vehicle is more powerful, faster to 60, handles better and is mated with a manual transmission. (Please, automobile manufacturers, I beseech you – do not fully abandon stick shifts!) Why? Because I love to drive and I feel more connected to my vehicle when I am plunging the clutch to the floor while flipping through the gears to maximize my enjoyment – there is no better feeling behind the wheel than dropping the transmission into a lower gear while hitting the gas to power through a corner. I hope that never goes away.

I repeat, like so many songs of the 80s do:

I just can’t get enough.
I just can’t get enough.
I just can’t get enough.
I just can’t get enough.

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