Although the future of government mandated fuel efficiency standards may be in doubt, fuel-saving technology is here to stay. Consumers are increasingly conscious of both the environmental impact of and the cost of fuel for their daily driving. Further, fuel-saving innovations are not just design decisions to make the vehicle more fuel-efficient, but actual technological advances that make vehicles better. This has two important consequences: 1. Now that the technology exists, automakers are compelled to continue the development of fuel-efficient solutions. 2. Suppliers across all component categories are being asked to compete in the fuel efficiency area, providing lighter and smarter products to OEMs worldwide.
When most people think about fuel-saving vehicles, they immediately think of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and hybrid vehicles (PHEVs and HEVs). Others may think about different drivetrain changes like turbocharging, cylinder deactivation, and start/stop systems. Drivetrain systems are the most obvious answer to automakers to improve fuel efficiency, but they are far from the full picture.
To meet increasing fuel efficiency regulations, automakers have been experimenting with every part of the vehicle, far beyond just the drivetrain. Weight reduction is one of the widest-ranging efforts by OEMs to improve mileage. For many years this was only a concern among performance enthusiasts; however, lightweighting is now spreading among standard commercial vehicles. Materials like high-strength steel, carbon fiber, aluminum, and new alloys are allowing manufacturers to use less, stronger material to do the same job as before, though at a higher cost. The vehicle frame is the primary target of lightweighting efforts, but other components such as seats, plastic pieces, and even wiring have been targets of weight reduction programs. These may seem like they only save a small amount of weight, but even a five percent reduction in vehicle weight can add about two percent more gas mileage.
OEM tires are typically designed to maximize fuel efficiency. These tires minimize rolling resistance, occasionally at the expense of durability, but maximize OEMs’ fuel economy ratings. Fuel-efficient tires make the largest difference in highway driving, but still can contribute to fuel savings in city driving as well.
Connected Autonomous Vehicles
The most interesting technology on the horizon with a major effect on fuel efficiency is connected autonomous vehicles. CAVs can reduce one of the greatest burdens on American driving: traffic. Researchers at the University of Delaware conducted a simulation aimed at reducing fuel consumption by 20%. This can be done not only by reducing traffic jams due to error-prone human driving, but also by coordinating with other cars at intersections to reduce waiting times and choosing the best routes in response to traffic and road conditions. Traffic lights and other infrastructure, when able to communicate with vehicles, will increase traffic throughput, minimize waiting and idling, and reduce overall time on the road. Adaptive cruise control and more advanced vehicle-to-vehicle communications can safely decrease following distance, both increasing aerodynamic fuel efficiency and traffic flow; and decrease unnecessary acceleration and braking done by human drivers. Soon, autonomous and semi-autonomous cars will be better and safer drivers than any of us could ever be.
So what does this mean to component suppliers? Keep innovating. While CAFE and other standards are in danger of being replaced now, that may change next week, next month, or the next election, and OEMs and suppliers are not going to abandon technology that they will continue to need in the future. Nearly every component can contribute in some way to fuel efficiency, and no supplier wants to be left behind.