By Dave Cooke, Union of Concerned Scientists
Four years ago, we noted that auto manufacturers were well on their way to meeting the 2025 vehicle efficiency standards set under the previous administration, with a number of vehicles overachieving on their targets. Since then, manufacturers have squandered that head start and pushed for a rollback of the standards. This is the first post in a blog series on how manufacturers can, and should, get back on track.
This series details on a vehicle-by-vehicle basis different strategies to reduce fuel use from gasoline-powered vehicles. It will demonstrate that, using known fuel-saving strategies, manufacturers can make existing vehicle models that comply with emissions standards for 2025 while saving consumers money and dramatically reducing fuel consumption. This is true in vehicles that span all shapes and sizes, from compact sedans to pick-up trucks and SUVs.
Electric vehicles are a critical part of a sustainable transportation future. But even as sales of EVs continue to ramp up over the next decade, the vast majority of vehicles sold in the United States in that timeframe are going to continue to be powered by internal combustion engines and remain on our roads for decades more. It is therefore of the utmost importance that those fossil-fuel powered vehicles get substantially more efficient, even as we make the transition to cleaner, alternative fuels like electricity.
In direct contradiction to claims made by the administration and automakers alike, our research shows that the 2025 standards can, in fact, be met largely based upon improving gasoline-powered vehicles. And it is the goal of this blog series to show what that would actually look like, both for manufacturers and consumers. (Spoiler: consumers save money as a result.)
Some details of how we modeled these vehicles along with a link to the full methodology can be found at the blog series’ landing page. So without further ado, let’s take a look at our first test case…
How the VW Jetta can clean up its act
The Volkswagen (VW) Jetta was at the heart of the infamous “dieselgate” scandal, which rattled the industry as a result of the deception and devastating public health and environmental consequences of the company’s actions. Since then, VW has shifted away from diesel and has announced that the next generation of internal combustion engines will be its last, choosing instead to invest in electric vehicles and even partnering with competitors on its shared platform to scale up and bring down costs of EVs faster.
While waiting for that transition, however, the global automaker is slated to sell a hundred million vehicles globally, most of which will run on fossil fuels. In the United States, the VW Jetta remains one of the company’s top sellers, so cleaning up its act in its future, 8th generation redesign, is critical to the company’s success in meeting future vehicle efficiency standards. By deploying its most efficient technologies already developed and matching its competitors’ curb weight, VW could cut fuel use from the Jetta by nearly 14 percent, reducing lifetime emissions from each vehicle by more than 8 tons and saving its customers up to $900. Here’s how.
Just don’t make the car so heavy!
The newest Jetta will now use the company’s shared MQB platform, which allows the manufacturer to simplify design and manufacturing for vehicles of a broad range of sizes and types. While moving to this more modern platform helped reduce a small amount of weight, the company missed a greater opportunity—despite shedding just over 50 pounds from its previous incarnation, the new Jetta weighs up to 200 pounds more than its competitors’ compacts as a result of continuing to rely on mild steel for nearly a third of the Jetta’s body (by weight).
Lightweight materials can serve a dual purpose, offering both enhanced stiffness for handling and safety while also reducing the amount of power needed to move the vehicle. A peer-reviewed reportby the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), incorporating Honda’s own comments on what was possible, showed how the mass of the Honda Accord could be reduced by more than 20 percent, even while meeting the latest safety tests, thanks to a mixed material deployment involving advanced high-strength steel, aluminum, and even plastics. That same knowledge can be applied to the smaller Jetta sedan.
VW began incorporating higher-strength steels to enhance safety way back with the fifth generation Jetta, and the latest Jetta (7th gen.) uses less than one-third conventional, low-tensile strength steel, a considerable decrease in that time span. However, they could do a lot more, such as utilizing aluminum closures and increasing the tensile strength of the advanced high-strength steels already deployed while increasing the share of ultra-high strength steels in line with the NHTSA study. If they were to do these things, the Jetta could shed another 225 pounds, which would put it right in line with the vehicles in its class with the best fuel economy.
Your engineers have already done better—use it!
Another significant opportunity to reduce fuel use would be to utilize technology already available in VW’s vehicles in Europe. For example, rather than the 1.4L turbocharged engine currently deployed in the Jetta, they can deploy their new 1.5L “evo” engine, which uses both a more efficient thermodynamic cycle (Miller) and cylinder deactivation (in a 4-cylinder!). Mating this with a 48V mild-hybrid system (again, already deployed in Europe) also improves upon the stop-start system used in the current Jetta, allowing for improved electrification of accessories and more responsive and seamless “on-off” behavior.
For the bigger 2.0L engine in the Jetta GLI, which powers the Jetta from 0-to-60 mph in under 7 seconds, VW could utilize the more efficient and newer EA888 Gen.3B engine, which runs a modified version of the Miller cycle and is already available in the Audi A3 and VW Tiguan. The one new innovation to the 3B VW should incorporate is the advanced cylinder deactivation strategy already demonstrated on VW’s EA888 platform in the 1.8L engine.
These tech changes mean savings for consumers
By incorporating these known technologies into the redesigned 2025 Jetta, VW can save its consumers thousands of dollars in fuel, more than offsetting the direct cost of the technologies themselves. Even after assuming that Volkswagen passed along the entire cost of the technology improvements with an increased retail price, factoring in financial costs of the vehicle, and discounting future fuel savings, customers would still net $900 over the vehicle’s lifetime. And it would cut global warming emissions by nearly 25 percent compared to the current model.
The current standards are achievable, feasible, and critical to a sustainable path forward
The administration is looking to gift the oil industry unnecessary fossil fuel use, paid for on the backs of consumers and the economy writ large. False claims from manufacturers about the feasibility of the current vehicle efficiency standards enable that disastrous policy.
VW itself knows that there is more to be done—they’ve told California as much, agreeing to standards that go well beyond the Trump administration’s rollback. But they’ve also previously recommended against making any changes to the current standards, owing to “its own investments in fuel saving and electric drive technology as well as to the development of market acceptance for these measures.”
The VW Jetta is just one example of how manufacturers can clean up their gasoline-powered fleet, even as they shift their fleet to vehicles powered (at least in part) by electricity. The solutions are known and simply require putting the best of what the industry has to offer in a package that is actually made available to consumers.
Manufacturers have the ability to meet the existing 2025 standards and deliver for their customers—stay tuned for further examples that showcase the different strategies available to make vehicles of all sizes and types more efficient.