April 20, 2005

Years Before Auto Fuel Consumption is Reduced

DETROIT (AFP) -- It will be more than a decade before alternative technologies like hybrid vehicles have a notable impact on gas consumption, a senior executive at DaimlerChrysler told AFP.

"No technology is going to make any significant difference unless it has market penetration," Marc Chernoby, vice president of advance engineering at Chrysler Group, said in a recent interview at the auto maker's headquarters in Auburn Hills, near Detriot.

"The only way you're going to provide high volume is by providing value."

Even if hybrid sales were to continue to double in the coming years, they would still represent a fraction of vehicles on the road, Chernoby said.

Most US consumers simply are not willing to spend several thousand dollars more for a hybrid. And even if they were, the components are not yet available from suppliers in large quantities, he added.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the hybrids currently available save the average driver anywhere from 300 to 600 dollars (230 to 460 euros) a year in fuel costs.

With current markups of around 6,000 to 14,000 dollars (4,600 to 10,700 euros) over the base models, gas prices would have to double for most consumers to recover that initial expense.

That's one reason why Chrysler is employing a multi-prong approach to reducing gas consumption focused on: increased fuel efficiency in traditional engines; developing hybrid vehicles; expanding diesel vehicle sales; and more than 1 billion dollars (765 million euros) investment in hydrogen fuel cell technology, Chernoby said.

"We think there's a place for all of these technologies," he said. "We think there's room in the market place even for simple things like the electric car."

The company has decided to wait until 2008 to introduce a hybrid model -- the Dodge Durango -- in order to hit the "sweet spot" of the market, Chernoby said.

The Durango will be more efficient than current hybrid models because it has electric motors buried in the transmission that can operate in tandem with the gasoline engine even at high speeds.

Current hybrids are limited in that the electrical motor only operates at low speeds.

Chrysler is also focused on expanding the market for diesel-powered vehicles which can improve fuel economy by an average of 30 percent and lower carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent, although they do release higher levels of other pollutants.

About 44 percent of new vehicles sold in Europe are diesel-powered compared with less than three percent of the US market.

A 30 percent market penetration of diesel vehicles would reduce US net crude oil imports by 350,000 barrels per day, according to the US Department of Energy.

Drivers who like a lot of power under the hood are also targeted with the HEMI engine's Multi-Displacement System. Rather than using all eight cylinders at all times, the engine switches down to lower power levels when possible, improving fuel economy up to 20 percent.

The most promising innovation is the development of hydrogen fuel cells, Chernoby said. Hydrogen-powered vehicles emit nothing but water which is clean enough to drink. But they are still in the experimental phase and it will take a massive effort by automakers, regulators and energy companies to provide the necessary infrastructure to introduce hydrogen vehicles into popular use, Chernoby said.

"Global harmonization is critical because the cost of the technology is huge," Chernoby said. "The big challenge is going to be satisfying the value equation for a large group of customers."