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What will be fueling your car in the future?

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Hydrogen fuel cells, compressed natural gas, all-electric… what kind of cars are we going to be driving in a few years?

The LA Auto Show wrapped up… and the next big show is the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Hall in Detroit in January.

There, of course, is a lot of well-orchestrated hype at these big auto shows. If you’re looking for a clear direction on what we’ll be driving in the future, it’s still a mixed bag. But, new advances are dominated by efficiency improvements in the internal combustion engine.

Brandon Schoettle is with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. While there were announcements at the LA Show from Honda and Hyundai about hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles, Schoettle says most of the innovations being made are based on the same power source automakers have been using for more than 100 years: the gasoline-burning engine.

“We don’t see a big change in the foreseeable future partly because there’s been a pretty big success recently with the automakers really kind of wringing out more fuel efficiency from the internal combustion engines that they have,” Schoettle explained.

Schoettle adds the automakers have been finding ways to get better mileage. People are buying cars, SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks that are getting nearly five miles per gallon more than they did just six years ago.

“August of this year there was a record high by our tracking at 24.9 mpg (national fleet-wide average). They’ve been consistently hitting records every few months. So, a good sign to us that consumers are very interested in and on a certain level demanding the better fuel economy from the vehicles that they’re going in to purchase.”

Automakers complained about government regulations forcing them to build better mileage vehicles, but one auto dealer says in an ironic twist, it just might be the manufacturers creating greater demand for better fuel efficiency because manufacturers are pushing fuel mileage on TV ads.


“Introducing the new 2014 Malibu with stop/start technology and an EPA estimated 36 miles per gallon highway.”
“Fusion Hybrid, the most fuel-efficient mid-size sedan in America.”
“And fuel efficiency. Chrysler 200 and 300. Sometimes it’s better just to be better.”

Marketing those improvement the past few years –whether they wanted to make them or not- has been a bragging point automakers often make. As each manufacturer develops a new approach, they see it as a unique selling point. Some are using smaller engines with turbo chargers, or technology that shuts off the engine when you stopped, or shutting down half the cylinders while cruising. And then there are electric hybrids or all-electric powered cars.

Jeffery Gordon is General Manager and co-owner of the Dave Knapp Ford dealership in Adrian, Michigan. He says fuel efficiency is more and more a factor when people are looking at buying a new vehicle, but it’s not always top of the list.

“You know, if that customer wants that SUV that gets a few miles per gallon less or they want all-wheel-drive versus front-wheel-drive and they’re sacrificing some mileage, they still make the decision for the vehicle they want based on their wants and needs not based on fuel mileage. But, I do believe fuel mileage is important to them. It’s still a deciding factor; it’s just not the deciding factor.”

Researchers say if you’re that person who’s loyal to the same make and model and buys the same vehicle every four or five years -say you like a particular pickup truck, the mileage will continue to get better every time you buy. The difference will be whether you’re burning gasoline, hydrogen, or plugging in.

But, according to the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy, whether it’s a hybrid or a straight gasoline or diesel burner, you can expect about 90 percent of new cars sold as far in the future as 2040 will have internal combustion engines.

So, it looks as though most of us will be pulling up to the pump for a long time to come.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.