SAE guests stress need for efficiency Justin Hyde - Detroit Free Press - April 5, 2006 After spending much of the past two decades in a race to boost the power of their engines, automakers and their suppliers now say improving fuel economy will be the top priority for the next 20 years. With oil prices, instability in the Middle East and concerns over global warming on the rise, auto engineers are feeling more pressure than ever to make vehicles run farther on a gallon of fuel. To push the industry along, one congressman will propose a federal contest to promote hydrogen vehicles. It will include a $100-million prize. "Powertrain innovation is going to matter a whole lot more in the future to the public at large than it has in the past," said Jeff Alson, a senior policy adviser with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He spoke Tuesday to the Society of Automotive Engineers 2006 World Congress at Cobo Hall in Detroit. "While there's not a consensus on what we're going to do, there is a consensus in Europe and the U.S. that the climate is changing," Alson said. Alson noted that the average new U.S. vehicle today has only slightly better fuel economy than the average vehicle in 1981, about 21 miles to the gallon. Today's vehicles, however, weigh 900 pounds more and their engines generate more than double the power of 1980s models. Automakers have said for years that they're simply building what customers want, and there's ample evidence to back them up. Sales of large SUVs have fallen in recent months, but several surveys have found that although buyers are increasingly concerned about fuel economy, they care more about power and dependability. Michigan motorists are paying about 40 cents a gallon more for gasoline than they did a year ago, thanks, in part, to oil costs of $66 a barrel. Yet Chris Cowland, technical director of AVL Powertrain Engineering, said it would take far higher prices to change consumers' behavior. "It is going to be pretty hard to get people to push for more efficient vehicles when there's no monetary penalty to not do it," he said. What has caught the auto industry's attention is forecasts of tightening supplies and rising demand for oil, along with tougher fuel economy rules in Europe and the United States. Christoph Huss, BMW AG's senior vice president of science and traffic policy, said BMW now expects oil production to peak in 2015, even as demand continues to grow worldwide. "If we have to pay $100 a barrel for oil, the alternatives rapidly come into the game," Huss said. Those alternatives include diesels, hybrids, ethanol-powered vehicles and combinations of all of the above, along with more high-tech modifications to engines. "Everything that saves fuel in the future has to be used," said Klaus Borgmann, BMW's director of powertrain development. One boost for new technology could come from the federal government. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., said he would introduce a bill later this week to launch the H Prize, a federal contest for hydrogen-powered vehicles. The bill would create a one-time, $100-million award to the group that has the biggest breakthrough in generating hydrogen and designing a vehicle by 2017. The contest also would include smaller annual awards of $1 million for storage breakthroughs and biannual prizes of $4 million for prototype vehicles. Inglis compared his bill to the contests that helped to build the Transcontinental Railroad and helped spur the first flight around the globe. "We are dependent on a fuel source that we are unwise to continue depending on," Inglis said. "We have the opportunity to switch away from a source of energy not many of us have to a source of energy that all of us have."