Gas may be less than two bucks a gallon right now, but that doesn't mean that automakers aren't working hard to make cars use less fuel. Through 2025, U.S. fuel-economy regulations get increasing stiffer, requiring automakers to get to a fleet-wide average above 40 mpg combined on the window sticker.
That's not the highway figure, it's what the EPA views as a combination of urban and extra-urban driving. To say that it will be a challenging goal to meet is an understatement. We're already starting to see evidence of how these regulations will change cars over the next few years—and we'll see countless more soon.
Even with cheap gas, cars of the future will drink far less fuel than they do today. Note that while electric cars are certainly here to stay, they're not subject to similar efficiency standards (because, obviously, they don't use any fuel!).
Here's a quick look at what you can expect to see in cars over the next few years as manufacturers work toward that lofty fuel-economy goal.
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1. Vastly improved aerodynamics.
Only a part of the EPA's test has to do with high-speed driving, but that's one of the places where car manufacturers can gain the most ground. Reducing wind resistance at speeds over about 40 mph helps save a tremendous amount of fuel. We can expect new cars to be far more slippery than current ones—and that's something likely to pose a challenge for trucks and SUVs.
Example: In 1997, a Nissan Altima's coefficient of drag was 0.35. Today? It's as low as 0.265.
2. Smaller, more efficient engines.
The turbocharger has been around in passenger cars since the 1960s, but never before have there been more options. Today's turbos are durable and have been engineered to reduce lag so much that many drivers aren't even aware that they're in a turbocharged car.
There isn't a single mainstream automaker without at least one turbocharged engine in its lineup today, and some—like Ford—have nearly bailed out of non-turbo engines. Turbocharged engines benefit from reduced gasoline consumption, but only to a point. If the turbo is spooled up—under hard acceleration, for instance—it may guzzle at a faster rate than a non-turbo.
Example: Volvo squeezes 316 horsepower out of a 2.0-liter turbocharged and supercharged 4-cylinder. A decade ago, 150 horsepower out of a 2.0-liter engine was decent.
3. Self-lowering suspensions.
Perhaps no automaker has experimented with air suspensions that drop a vehicle down at highway speeds as much as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, but we can expect others to follow suit.
These systems, once reserved for costly electric cars, quickly and silently lower a vehicle to reduce the amount of air turbulence underneath at highway speeds; they have a massive impact on aerodynamics. The downside? Even relatively simple systems like those used in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 are costly, although adding them to more cars will reduce their price tags.
Example: Just about every SUV over $50,000 now has an air suspension. It's not just there to provide a softer ride.
4. Weight reduction.
Do more with less. Cars have gotten rather plump over the years... and that's your fault. Why, you ask? Because consumers have requested roomier cars with more features. Nearly every car redesign is accompanied with automakers tooting their horns over how they've carved out more interior room and have added more bells and whistles.
But just like dieting after the holidays, cutting weight is harder than adding it back in. We're seeing more use of ultra lightweight materials like aluminum and carbon fiber on every component and automakers are looking at ways to simply cut materials out in general; even stereo speakers have cut excess plastic and fasteners. It all adds up.
Example: General Motors managed to cut around 400 pounds out of the Chevrolet Malibu in the mid-size sedan's most recently redesign.
5. Costs will increase.
There's no way around it: Making cars more efficient is going to cost you money. The average price of a new car in 2016 was over $34,000 and that will continue to climb as automakers find themselves installing more tech and building with more exotic materials.
The good news? While $34,000 is undoubtedly a lot of money, when adjusted for inflation, cars are still cheaper today than they've been at just about any point in history.
Example: Let's keep talking about that Malibu. Twenty years ago, a base Malibu was about $16,000. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $2,000 more than the 2017.
6. Hidden aero boosts.
Automakers have been working with special shutters that close and open in car grilles for nearly 100 years, but the technology is just now coming into its own. Think of the shutters in your house and imagine far more aerodynamic ones hidden behind your car's grille to help better direct airflow around the nose at higher speeds. When needed, they'll automatically open up to improve engine cooling, but that's really only necessary at lower speeds or on unusually hot days.
Example: Countless new cars have grille shutters today, including pickups like the Ram 1500 HFE.
7. Start/stop systems.
In Europe, nearly every new car automatically turns itself off at traffic lights. While not much fuel is used during a brief idling period, several minutes at traffic lights on your daily commute will add up quickly.
Why aren't start/stop systems commonplace here? Right now, they aren't much of a factor in the EPA's city fuel-economy test, so automakers figure it's not worth the cost and complexity if consumers won't see a higher number when they're shopping. But that's likely to change in the future.
Example: Start/stop systems are becoming increasingly common on Ford and General Motors vehicles in particular.
8. Hybrid tech.
Hybrids have now been around for a while. They combine gasoline engines and electric motors to significantly reduce consumption by recapturing otherwise wasted energy and using it to propel the car. As the price of batteries continues to fall, they may become even more popular (if they're not supplanted by all-electric cars, anyhow).
Example: Acura uses electric motors to power the wheels directly in some of its all-wheel-drive models, an innovative approach intended to combine fuel savings with improved performance.
9. Cars that are smarter than we are.
Cars can apply their brakes and steer on their own now, and they are starting to talk to infrastructure (traffic lights, for example). The next step is cars that talk to each other—and we're not that far away. These are major steps toward self-driving cars, which will certainly be able to drive far more efficiently than most of us can.
Sure, hypermilers—those who go out of their way to save as much fuel as possible—will always be able to maximize the performance of their vehicles, but the rest of us continue use much more fuel in accelerating harder than we need to (only to brake hard at the next light) and driving at less-than-efficient speeds.
Example: Certain Audis can now communicate directly with traffic lights in Las Vegas. (We tested it recently)
10. Gears and more gears.
One of the most important ways to save fuel is to keep a vehicle's engine speed as low as possible. To do that, while still giving drivers the ability to cruise on 85-mph highways, automakers have taken a close look at transmissions. More gears are better as they offer a wider range of ratios.
We expect to see more continuously-variable transmissions like those employed by Nissan and Subaru in most of their lineups, as well as more 8-, 9-, and 10-speed conventional automatics.
Example: Partners Ford and General Motors have developed a new 10-speed automatic for pickups and sports cars.
NOTE: For more detail on these technologies, see the three-part series on Green Car Reports that starts here, which contains links to the two successive pieces.
(c) 2016, High Gear Media.