TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Automaker powertrain organizations must be ambidextrous to meet future global efficiency rules, employing a combination of conventional and disruptive technologies, says General Motors Vice President Dan Nicholson.
The automaker’s powertrain chief predicts through 2025, when U.S. fuel-economy regulations are expected to peak at 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km), “the overwhelming majority” of powertrain technology will be conventional internal-combustion engines leveraging incremental efficiency gains not yet fully employed.
“The incremental innovation is driving the majority of the improvement in the fleet average fuel efficiency,” Nicholson tells the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here. “But given zero-emissions requirements, the leading organizations must be capable of introducing disruptive innovations for efficiency as well.”
Nicholson, who heads Global Propulsion Systems at GM, says hybrids were on average 24 mpg more efficient than ICEs on American roads in 2005, and by 2015 the gap had closed to 13 mpg.
“We expect that trend to continue into the future,” Nicholson says.
A majority of the gains for conventional ICEs have come from downsized-boosted technology, and Nicholson considers it the “proper technology” for 2025 standards. But he says GM also will execute additional ICE technologies, such as light electrification and the Miller thermodynamic combustion cycle with turbocharging.
Expect more aggressive exhaust-gas recirculation emissions technology on GM vehicles, as well as broader use of CVTs.
CVTs have met a tepid response in the U.S. because they mostly have lacked the familiar shift points of stepped-gear transmissions and often emit unfavorable noise and vibration. But Nicholson says GM can overcome those issues.
“It matters a lot how you integrate it,” he says, noting stepped-gear transmissions may offer higher mechanical efficiency, but CVTs are a smarter play for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.
But it is not enough to invent fancy new technologies, Nicholson warns. Enterprising powertrain organizations must recognize which future technologies work best together, he says, citing GM’s success in combining direct fuel injection with small, turbo gasoline engines and adding noise-damping centrifugal pendulum absorbers to diesels such as the new 2.8L 4-cyl. Duramax in the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups.
“Maximizing this understanding is the only way to be on the cost/quality frontier for propulsion systems,” Nicholson says.
Nicholson also calls industry collaboration the new standard to put advanced technologies into production, pointing to GM’s work with Ford on 10-speed transmissions and Honda on fuel-cell electric vehicles.
“Collaboration can do many things for us,” he says. “Shared development costs and capital investment provide broader access to technical solutions, increase the clock speed for rapid cycles of learning, increase scale economies even for low-volume products, facilitate standardization and can be a source of new ideas and methods.”
At the same time, Nicholson says ambitious fuel-economy and CO2 emissions targets will take more than just industry innovation. History demonstrates consumers are unwilling to pay for fuel-saving technology, so incentives should be in place to spur their rollout.
Fuel providers should put skin in the game, too, by offering higher-octane fuel for inexpensive efficiency gains, and regulators need to harmonize global emissions procedure protocols.
“Customers are not getting value from region-to-region (test procedure) variation,” says Nicholson, who as president of the International Federation of Engineering Societies plans to lobby for greater regulatory harmonization.
“It would also enable regulators to do a better and more consistent job regulating, and it might have an enforcement benefit in facilitating coordination between different countries.”