TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- For all of the talk about hybrids, electric cars and hydrogen-powered vehicles, people should get used to driving cars with good, old-fashioned gasoline engines, top automotive engineers said today.
Even with all of the research, 10 years from now, 80 percent of the cars on the road worldwide will use gasoline or diesel engines, Barb Samardzich, Ford's vice president for powertrain engineering, said at the Center for Automotive Research's annual Management Briefing Seminars in Michigan.
"In emerging markets, you're going to see an even higher concentration of traditional powertrains," Samardzich said.
The issue remains cost. Batteries for electric cars and hybrids are still prohibitively expensive for affordable cars. To break even with gasoline and diesel technologies, battery costs would have to fall 70 percent by 2020, and petroleum prices would have to more than triple, said Johannes-Joerg Rueger, senior vice president of diesel systems for German automotive supplier Robert Bosch LLC.
Larry Nitz, GM's executive in charge of the Chevrolet Volt electric car and hybrid vehicles, said research into advanced engines and propulsion systems will continue. But by 2020, he sees an automotive world that looks a lot like what we're seeing today.
The good news is that traditional small engines are getting more fuel-efficient. Nitz said several existing technologies could boost fuel economy by as much as 20 percent over the next few years. Adding systems that shut down engines at red lights could boost economy another 8 percent, he added.
"If we want to go further, we have to consider electrification," Nitz said. That means hybrids, electric cars and eventually hydrogen fuel cells.
Regulators and lawmakers have been pushing car companies to offer more electrically driven vehicles, but Nitz said there's little consumer demand for vehicles that carry the steep price tags found on such advanced cars.
The Chevrolet Volt, a car that will be able to go 40 miles on electric power before a small gasoline engine takes over, will go on sale this year for $41,000.
Samardzich said it's a great vehicle, but "we want to be able to provide a solution for all of our customers. At $30,000 or $40,000, you've taken a lot of consumers out of the equation."
She added that GM's strategy may give the company a showcase to display its technological capabilities, Ford is focusing on systems that are affordable to millions of drivers. Ford's most public effort in recent years has been EcoBoost, a system that boosts the power of small engines, allowing the automaker to replace V-8s with six-cylinder engines and V-6s with four-cylinder options.
Ford's Cleveland Engine Plant No. 1 in Brook Park makes the company's 3.5-liter V-6 EcoBoost, an engine used in the Taurus SHO sedan and several other vehicles. By the end of this year, it will go into the F-150 pickup, where Samardzich said she expects it to be very popular.
"We have complete towing capability. There is absolutely no compromise with that in the F-150," she said. Samardzich declined to share specific numbers, but she said the EcoBoost will have similar performance and cost numbers to the V-8 F-150, but it will get much better fuel economy.
Nitz said there's a clear conflict facing automakers: Regulators are demanding better fuel economy, but consumers aren't willing to spend money for the technologies that lead to fuel savings.
"Our public policy and social emphasis is in conflict with consumers," Nitz said. "The march to lower [carbon dioxide] will drive costs into vehicles. The rate at which we drive it into vehicles is less dependent on consumers and more dependent on regulators."
Still, all of the speakers on the powertrain panel agreed that electric and other advanced vehicles will be necessary in the future, as gasoline prices rise and oil gets harder to extract. But don't expect any major changes soon.
Samardzich said automakers, suppliers and researchers are spending billions of dollars to try to develop electric powertrains. While the efforts are driving costs down for batteries and other systems, the gap is still too wide.
"We have to look forward and see where the technology is going. We always say there's no silver bullet," she said. "We have to try everything."