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If Im ever struggling for a topic to write about, the federal government always has a way of supplying me with a great subject to cover. Emissions, alternate fuels and fuel economy are always under discussion. This month, its fuel economy. On May 19, the White House issued a press release which said in part:

President Obama today – for the first time in history – set in motion a new national policy aimed at both increasing fuel economy and reducing green-house gas pollution for all new cars and trucks sold in the United States. The new standards, covering model years 2012-2016, and ultimately requiring an average fuel economy standard of 35.5 mpg in 2016, are projected to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program, with a fuel economy gain averaging more than 5 percent per year and a reduction of approximately 900 million metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions. This would surpass the CAFE law passed by Congress in 2007 which required an average fuel economy of 35 mpg in 2020…

For automobile manufacturers, this policy means that average fuel economy of the passenger car fleet they sell each year will have to go from 27.5 mpg today to 39 mpg by 2016, and light truck fuel economy will move from about 22.5 mpg to 30 mpg; just to make it interesting, there are intermediate levels to be reached between now and 2016 as well. So in seven years, fuel economy will increase by 42 percent while crude consumption is to drop by about 4 percent. Id say that is a daunting challenge for the automakers.

Predictably, and to their credit, the OEMs say that they will be able to do it. The how varies widely and includes hybrids, all-electric cars, diesels, smaller vehicles, lighter weight materials – just to name a few. Of course, this wont be cheap. Estimates are that the average automobile price will increase by about $1,300.

The questions for us in the lubricants industry are, how we can assist in this effort? Certainly we will be involved, but to what extent? Have we squeezed the last drop of fuel economy benefit from the products we supply? What else can we do?

The obvious place to begin is with the engine oil. As noted in this column before, engine oil viscosity has been going down for the last 30 years. We are currently moving towards SAE 0W-20 engine oils with a resultant reduction in viscous drag. In addition to viscosity decreases, the oil and additive industries have developed and marketed friction-modified oils. Testing of such oils shows that friction modification does lower fuel consumption. That, coupled with lower viscosity, have resulted in some 2 to 3 percent reduction in fuel consumption. At the targeted 39 mpg, such a change could deliver an additional 1 mpg of fuel savings. Can we go much further? For the gasoline-fueled engine as we know it today, its doubtful.

For the diesel-fueled engine, it is possible to reduce engine oil viscosity since current oil requirements call for SAE 15W-40 (by far the most popular U.S. weight) and SAE 10W-30. Over the next few years I feel sure that engine design will advance to the point where SAE 0W-30 and SAE 0W-20 will be acceptable.

Alas, friction modifiers dont seem to have the same beneficial impact in a diesel engine as they do in gasoline-fueled engines. This is probably due to the fact that much of the metal-to-metal contact is managed with roller bearings rather than sliding metal surfaces (for example, cam shafts and followers). If we can buy a few tenths of a mpg with diesel engine oil viscosity and friction modification, we will have done about all we can.

Seek Elsewhere?

Regardless of the power source for a vehicle, there are a number of lubrication points where fuel economy improvements can be made. Wheel bearings, transmissions, power steering and hydraulic systems all represent potential sites for efficiency improvements that will result in improved mileage. Lubricants which can reduce friction in any part of the vehicle will be a welcome addition to the process. However, here too, we will be able to improve mileage in each case by only tenths of a mpg.

On the hybrid front, engines will be smaller and more efficient since they can operate at a more constant load and speed, which will improve fuel economy. Instead of an engine which must be powerful enough to get a heavy mass moving, the hybrid engine will drive an electric motor which will provide the motive force. The need for an extra bit of power will be accomplished by the generator operating at a relatively fixed output. These systems are already in place on large off-road vehicles and locomotives. The scale would obviously be smaller but the understanding is there already.

The concept of an all-electric vehicle is also well known. The primary need is for more range from the battery. Currently, an all-electric vehicle is great for short hauls and commutes but is definitely not favored for long trips. There will have to be places conveniently located along the highways for a quick recharge, or the batteries will have to carry a greater charge density. Either way, a lot of work has to be done.

It may be that for long trips, public transportation will make a comeback. Buses, rail and air travel might have to be expanded to meet the requirements of extended trips. All that would mean adding more stops on the routes and for lower-cost public transportation. This opens up some intriguing possibilities for lubrication such as locomotive, bus and to some extent aircraft. Could there be a resurgence of interest in these markets?

Smaller vehicles (read lighter weight) are also in our future. The first new car I owned was a Volkswagen Beetle circa 1966. There was room for four adult men. I know because my father, uncle, brother-in-law and I went to a football game in the Los Angeles Coliseum in it and none of us was less than 200 pounds at the time. That was a one-hour drive each way and it was tight, to say the least.

The VW had a 1.3-liter, 4-cylinder, air cooled rear engine. Its lubrication requirements were not sophisticated. The engine oil was Service MS, SAE 10W-30, and the transaxle used an SAE 80W-90 GL-4 gear oil. Now we use GF-4 (soon to be GF-5) SAE 0W-20 engine oil, and automatic transmission fluid as the transaxle lubricant. Both improve fuel economy through friction modification and lowered viscosity. New small engine designs deliver far more horsepower for their size than did the old Beetle, and can push larger automobiles, for greater driving comfort.

With smaller vehicle size you already gain fuel economy but there is a disadvantage regarding safety. In a transitional market, smaller cars would be like soccer balls to the heavier, larger vehicles now on the road. I would not want a VW Beetle to tangle with a Ford Excursion, for example.

Metallurgy or alternate materials will also be an important part of this fuel economy revolution. It is likely that there will be greater use of lighter-weight metals (plus fiber-glass and composites) in vehicle manufacturing. However, new metallurgy could possibly cause some conflicts with lubrication, such as corrosion of metal surfaces and/or oxidation of the oil. Future oils will probably have to demonstrate compatibility with any new materials.

A few months ago, I wrote on fuel economy in the heavy-duty truck arena. In that research, I found that driving habits made the biggest impact on fuel consumption – and here is where I think significant gains can be made. It will be difficult to do, and probably will not come about by better educating the driving public. Instead, I suspect it will take some changes to automobiles that will be pretty life-altering.

Volvo recently started addressing this trend in the market with its low-speed crash-avoidance system, which will stop a car before it can rear-end another car. A radar system, coupled with the on-board computer, automatically will apply the brakes before the car can collide with a stopped vehicle in front of it. Just think about where this could lead.

The first on-board computers were introduced in the mid-80s to assist with combustion timing. Since then, they have become progressively more sophisticated. In fact, by 1993, Saab claimed that its ignition system (Lambda-sond) had more computing power than the Apollo space capsules which sent men to the moon.

Today, in addition to controlling fuel delivery, combustion timing, air/fuel ratio and a number of other functions, the on-board computer is a significant piece of the engine operating system. Also note how fast these changes occurred. What could the next seven years hold?

Imagine a system that would control the rate of acceleration so that there would be no fuel-burning jack-rabbit starts. The same system could manage vehicle operation to achieve the most fuel-conserving speed/load combination. Perhaps it could even moderate the shape of the exterior to reduce drag. Dont laugh – modern jet aircraft can alter their shapes to improve airspeed. Why couldnt automobiles create a more aerodynamic front when needed, to improve vehicle speed without sacrificing fuel economy?

The same system could manage traffic flow so that the current nemesis of the commuter, stop-and-go driving, could be eliminated, and vehicle speeds on a given highway would all be matched to improve the flow of traffic. It may take a few years, but it is doable if we want to make the effort.

I am a great fan of science fiction. In my lifetime, communications satellites were considered science fiction and are now fact. Travel to the moon was science fiction but is now fact. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubricks 2001: a Space Odyssey was science fiction – most of it still is – but some of it is now fact.

Whos to say that the worlds transportation system might not make a major change and become fact instead of science fiction? What a great thought!

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