Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

Better Mileage, Better Cars Coming

For all the hand wringing, complaining and eye rolling being done by auto makers who are now on board with the new fuel efficiency targets, one thing you don't hear about is the excitement of engineers, designers and suppliers. Excitement? Yes, excitement.

The new 2011 Ford Explorer SUV touts a sleek newly designed look that the company hopes will attract new buyers to the venerable SUV line.
Getty Images

After all, the men and women designing the cars and trucks that get the auto makers up to an average of 54 mpg by 2025 know that the next decade will be filled with more innovation, breakthroughs and cutting-edge designs. If you are a car geek, this ought to excite you as well.

Put aside whether or not you think the new fuel efficiency targets are too ambitious, and focus instead on how the auto makers will get there. Yes, many of the fuel efficiency gains will come from transitioning the engines and components in our cars and trucks.

For the average person, that's not sexy. For the people designing new models, it's the kind of challenge they will not only meet, but will relish.

Ask the people who brought the new Ford Explorer from the drawing board to the showroom about the re-designed SUV and one of the first things they point out is the mileage (17 city/25 highway) of the new Explorer. That's a huge improvement over the mileage of the previous model. More importantly, the gains are due to the use of lighter, more fuel-efficient materials and components.

For auto designers, this is a golden age. They are being forced to find new ways to power vehicles, new materials that make our cars as safe and fuel-efficient as possible, and oh by the way, make sure the designs will excite buyers. This is the reason why the team behind the Chevy Volt is geeked out about the car they designed and brought to market.

The technology in the Volt is the realization of ideas that were kicked around for years. What's impressive is that this is just the start. Future Volt models, like other electric vehicles, will have advancements that make the car do more with less.

What about safety requirements? The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says research shows there's plenty of room to increase fuel economy without compromising safety.

What about the argument that we're losing the muscle in trucks and SUVs? Ask the people who are now driving pick-ups powered by 4 cylinder engines if they feel like they don't have enough power, and what you'll hear is "No, can't notice much of a difference."

What about those who think our future will include pint-size micro-cars? That's ridiculous. We will see a greater variety of small cars to pick and choose from, but we will also have crossovers, SUVs and, yes, pick-up trucks.

The next 14 years will be filled more innovation than the industry saw between 1980 and 2000. Those were two decades where cheap gas made it easy to keep building bigger cars and trucks with only slight increases in fuel efficiency. And if you think back to those days, there was not a ton of breakthrough models/designs. Those days are gone. Let's see what the auto makers give us over the next 15 years.


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