Bells and Whistles Won’t Unlock Cost-Effective Auto Efficiency

As the New York auto show continues this week, Rocky Mountain Institute is encouraged by a growing number of efficient and electric models being introduced by automakers. But today’s “bells-and-whistles” approach to achieving better fuel economy is not enough to cost-effectively unlock the full efficiency potential of electric vehicles.

Reason 1: Fitness first

Automakers can either stay at the mercy of consumer response to oil volatility or they can position themselves for long-term advantage. Electric vehicles are expensive in large part because batteries are. But putting an electric powertrain in a traditional body is a bells-and-whistles approach—and an expensive one at that.

By first shifting to ultralight but ultrastrong autobodies made of advanced materials, propulsion systems can be smaller, lighter, cheaper, and more cost-effectively electrified. Automakers can thus deliver a more competitive product regardless of what is happening with gas prices, and regardless of which powertrain technology they ultimately adopt.

Reason 2: The value beyond cost savings isn’t always sold

Reduced total cost of ownership is not the only benefit of an efficient car. Automakers can market lightweight vehicles in a way that emphasizes performance in addition to efficiency. Vehicle lightness, particularly of the magnitude possible with advanced materials, allows better acceleration and improved noise, vibration, and handling characteristics, particularly if combined with electrified propulsion. Many customers will pay a high premium for performance—and an overall better driving experience—regardless of efficiency. It’s no coincidence that BMW, a first-mover in many of these areas—offers the “ultimate driving machine.”

Reason 3: Thermal comfort is under-addressed

Air conditioning in U.S. autos burns 170 million barrels of oil per year—5.5 percent of all U.S. consumption. Running a vehicle air conditioner at full blast is equivalent, in terms of energy consumption, to driving 35 mph. For a typical vehicle, this translates to a 26 percent reduction in mpg. For an electric vehicle, it reduces range by 36 percent, and heating has the same effect. By addressing thermal comfort in innovative ways, automakers can improve vehicle fuel economy and range, enhance passenger comfort, and reduce their own costs by downsizing air conditioning and heating systems.

More information on RMI’s work in transportation—aimed at getting the U.S. transportation sector off oil by 2050—is available here.

Greg Rucks is a consultant at RMI, where he has worked to develop energy-efficient design solutions for clients in the industrial and automotive sectors. Prior to joining RMI, Greg spent four years working for Boeing on structural optimization and lightweight design for the 787 program.