By Paul Williams

While driving a 2007 Honda Accord recently, it occurred to me that its 166-horsepower, four-cylinder engine makes as much power as the average V6 engine of a few years ago. Similarly, the 253-hp, V6 Accord Hybrid has higher performance numbers than several current V8 engines. And when you consider the formidable power of vehicles like the 290 hp Acura RL, it’s no wonder that people start talking about a renaissance of the muscle car era.

Indeed, consumers have more power under their collective right foot than at any other time in the history of the automobile. Add to this the safety, styling, luxury, utility, reliability and flat-out performance of the average new vehicle, and this might rank as the golden age of the car.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, nothing in terms of value for consumers, who arguably are “getting it all.” But there are broader, environmental concerns that come into play, especially now that global energy issues are becoming critical. The contentious factor is fuel economy, which John German, Honda’s Manager of Environmental and Energy Analysis points out, is affected negatively by many of the features and standard equipment that consumers now demand in their new vehicles.

“From 1987 to 2006,” said Mr. German in his recent address to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, “Technology has gone into the fleet [all the cars on the road] at a rate that could have improved fuel economy by almost 1.5% per year, if it had not gone to other attributes demanded by the marketplace.”

He describes this phenomenon an “attribute tradeoff,” where even though the average vehicle’s weight, “has increased by over 500 pounds (227 kilograms) from 1987-2000; 0-100 km/h performance has improved by about five seconds (from just under 15 seconds, to under 10 seconds), and the proportion of manual transmissions has dropped in half, fuel economy [has] remained relatively constant.”

But as I say, it’s probably true that most consumers regard this as a very good thing. After all, they get more, and don’t necessarily use more fuel, so superficially at least, it seems like a win-win situation. The problem is the gains made in fuel economy are being swallowed whole by additional standard features built into the vehicles.

This rather annoyingly validates my retired neighbour’s continuing mantra that back in the 1960s, his cherished Morris Minor (a British car of endearing design and dubious construction) got better mileage, “than most of those fancy new cars you see on the road today.” He says this as if his old car and a 2007 Honda Accord are actually comparable (he knows they’re really not) but nonetheless, it’s fair to ask why car manufacturers can’t do even better when it comes to fuel economy.

Check Honda’s history, for one, and you’ll find the company has been a leader in the development and use of technologies to make vehicles more efficient and eco-friendly for decades. While today Honda is envied for its advanced engineering, company representatives were talking “environmental responsibility” well before it was fashionable to do so. Honda’s slogan in the 1960s, for instance, was a prescient “Blue Skies for Children.” In the 1970s, Honda introduced its CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine in the Honda Civic to meet stringent new American emissions standards. The CVCC-equipped car was also the most fuel efficient in its category for four years running, and components of its design were used under license by many other manufacturers at the time.

The company was the first to introduce a hybrid gasoline/electric car to North America (the Insight), which has been recognized as one of the world’s cleanest and most fuel efficient production cars for many years. Most recently, Honda has introduced and continues to refine its “intelligent” i-VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) engines to produce high performance with increased fuel efficiency and lower emissions. And Honda’s new Advanced VTEC engine will, according to Mr. German, “achieve a world-leading level of performance and a 13 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency versus our current VTEC engine.” Last year, Honda released its second generation Integrated Motor Assist (hybrid system) and has recently introduced an advanced cylinder deactivation system called Variable Cylinder Management (VCM) for its V6 engines (the engine runs on three, four or six cylinders, depending on load) that will improve fuel efficiency by 11 per-cent.

As you can see, there’s no shortage of research, development and practical advances from a technological point of view (indeed, Mr. German suggests that that the internal combustion engine, even with sophisticated engine management systems, is still only operating at 20% of its potential efficiency), but there remain burgeoning ecological and international security issues associated with the production of fossil fuels, and the hunt really is on to find alternatives to supplement and eventually replace gasoline.

This is no easy task, as gasoline has tremendous energy density that’s hard to equal, let alone beat. For example, E-85 fuel (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) has 28 per cent less energy density than gasoline (which means an additional 28% of E-85 is required to produce the same range or performance as gasoline in your car). Along with the convenience and pricing issues this implies, there are obvious supply issues. At the time of this writing, there are no E-85 filling stations for consumers in Canada, nor is there anything like an adequate supply of fuel, although companies like Iogen in Ottawa are working on the production of cellulose ethanol (rather than corn-based ethanol) and trying to bring this to market.

“Frankly, we’re a little puzzled by the rush to E-85 right now,” says Mr. German of development in this direction. “Honda’s position is to go with E-10 (10% ethanol), ramp up research and development of cellulosic ethanol and see where it goes from there.” Certainly, if E-85 became viable, Honda would be ready; the company already markets an E-100 vehicle in Brazil. But at this point, says Mr. German, Honda would rather wait and see how things develop with ethanol before billions of dollars are invested in an infrastructure to support its use.

Battery technology is another challenge that goes beyond simply deploying more resources to solve a technical problem. As a further development of the conventional hybrid system, the notion of a plug-in hybrid (a version of the hybrid car with a bigger battery that you can recharge, typically overnight, from house current) is gaining popularity. It suggests even less dependency on gasoline, to the point of possibly eliminating gasoline altogether. However, Mr. German, while supportive of research in this area, points out that using today’s lithium-ion battery technology, you’d need a battery that weighs about a ton to produce the same energy as a tank of gasoline. He’s also concerned plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) would appeal to only a very small percentage of buyers.

“It’s no secret, what we need with batteries right now is a real breakthrough,” says Mr. German. In the meantime he sees better payback for consumers by continuing to develop what has become the “conventional” hybrid power train, which is Honda’s intention.

Fuel cells continue to promise a complete break from fossil fuels, and having driven a fuel cell car, I can attest that early versions are easy to operate, are quiet, have useful range and are regarded as emissions free. Honda was the first company to certify a fuel cell vehicle (the FCX) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and has leased fuel cell cars to individual consumers. A next generation FCX is expected for 2008, but Honda admits the infrastructure to supply hydrogen refueling continues to be a challenge. Currently, home-based refueling stations are planned, building on technology developed for Honda’s compressed natural gas vehicle.

What consumers can expect from Honda in the short term are two significant new initiatives due to be released to the North American market in 2009. Both will directly impact fuel economy. The first is a dedicated hybrid family car that’s planned to be less expensive than current hybrid vehicles, including the Civic Hybrid. A “dedicated” hybrid means that the vehicle won’t be built with any other form of motive power (unlike the Civic Hybrid, for instance, that can be purchased as a gasoline-only vehicle).

The second initiative will see the use of Honda’s new clean diesel engine, which will meet the U.S. Tier 2 Bin 5 emission standards. Those who’ve traveled in Europe recently will know that virtually half the vehicles on the roads there are diesel powered, and that diesels are noted for their fuel economy. Honda is not new to diesel engines, having sold Accord diesels, for instance, for many years overseas. Honda’s diesels are praised for their quietness, performance, frugal fuel consumption and clean operation. However, only recently has consumer demand in North America began to swing toward diesels, and with this willingness to consider the diesel option have come renewed efforts to reduce emissions and increase power output.

Overall, however, fuel economy continues to concern Mr. German. “It’s a case in which the value to society of reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is greater than the value that individual consumers place upon it,” explains Mr. German. In other words, consumers don’t want to give up the new safety, performance and luxury appointments available on cars today, and who can blame them? The corollary is that manufactures simply won’t be successful offering stripped-down, featureless cars that get great mileage.

Cognizant of an historic apathy by consumers concerning fuel economy, Mr. German suggests that more stringent fuel economy legislation is required, but coupled with performance-based incentives to stimulate market demand for vehicles that meet the new requirements (others would suggest that simply raising the price of fuel would have the same effect).

In Canada, consumers surely won’t say no to incentives, but the encouraging trend here is that consumers already rank the importance of fuel economy much higher than in the past. Does that mean we are more “environmentally” motivated in Canada? Not necessarily, but when you think about it, being thrifty is a form of conservation that can generate similar outcomes. According to a recent survey by Maritz Canada, “Fuel Economy is growing in importance as an overall purchase motivator,” and currently, nearly 11 per cent indicate that it was the Most Important Reason for Purchase. As well, it has become the third Most Important Reason for Purchase overall, trailing Value for the Money and Reliability/Dependability. Additionally, this trend, according to Maritz Canada, is increasing steadily to the point that almost 50 per-cent of purchasers indicate that fuel economy was “extremely important” to their purchase decision.

With consumers significantly elevating the importance of fuel economy when purchasing a new vehicle, you can expect that the range of “alternative” fuel options and fuel efficient technologies will proliferate. If vehicles that utilize such technologies are made more affordable — which is now the trend as hybrids and sophisticated engine management systems like Honda’s VCM become more widespread — many more consumers will have the means to buy into “green” technology, even if they don’t think of themselves as “environmentalists.”

Demand is a great motivator in the marketplace, but nobody really wants to drive a vintage Morris Minor, even if it does return great fuel economy. What consumers want is not to trade-off the modern safety, convenience and performance features that make driving both practical and pleasurable in the Canadian experience. But yes, they want great fuel economy, too.

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