Environmental Tires

Perhaps nothing on the average automobile is as taken for granted as its tires. Most people know they're black and round, and not much else. But tires can not only improve the handling of your car, but also serve as a hidden asset on the forefront of the battle against pollution and fuel waste.

Tires? Tires can aid in the battle against pollution? You've got to be kidding me! Well, no, we're not. Tires are not simply crucial in maintaining your vehicle's contact with the road surface; new, specially engineered tires are aiding the cause of better fuel economy and fewer exhaust emissions.

The key design element the new ecologically friendly tires share: lower rolling resistance. What's that? In layman's terms, a low-rolling-resistance tire creates less friction during operation than a conventional tire, and, because friction between the road surface and the tire requires extra power to overcome, the net result is better fuel economy versus the same vehicle equipped with conventional tires. Picture rolling a golf ball on pavement versus rolling a foam rubber ball and you can get some grasp of the overall concept of low rolling resistance.

Because low rolling resistance is so helpful in achieving excellent fuel economy, virtually all of the state-of-the-art gasoline-electric hybrids on the road today use them. Bridgestone Tire is on the forefront in that area with its Potenza RE92 standard equipment on the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, while its B381 is standard on the Honda Civic Hybrid. When it comes to electric vehicles, the Bridgestone Ecopia is standard on the Toyota RAV4 EV and the Honda EV Plus.

All of these tires have been specially designed for lower rolling resistance with lightweight, high-strength construction. This maximizes fuel efficiency, which contributes to cleaner-running vehicles, because, as a rule, vehicles that use less fuel also produce fewer emissions. And since fuel economy seems very important in most vehicle types these days, many of Bridgestone's other tires are also designed with low rolling resistances as a key attribute. To test the tire concepts Bridgestone engineers dove into solar car racing and fuel mileage research, developing valuable technologies for use on commercial vehicles.

"These applications show how we have been able to take what we learned in the development of the Ecopia line and incorporate it into our other tire lines, to meet the requirements of the original equipment manufacturers for these vehicles," said Mark Emkes, chairman, CEO and president of Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire. "Given the success of the Ecopia in solar powered car contests, this is an important continuation of our long-term practice of 'Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday.'"

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on technology and its relationship to fuel economy. He has moderate rolling resistance as well.

Fuel Economy Faux Pas

No, it isn't just you.  If you are disappointed that your car doesn't get the gasoline mileage that its Environmental Protection Agency sticker says it will get, you are not alone.  After lengthy rounds of tests, Automobile Club of Southern California and AAA car review experts have come to the same conclusion as many motorists -- the actual miles per gallon achieved during the daily use of a vehicle generally falls well short of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates. And further, they have test drive data to support that contention.  The AAA driving tests found dozens of examples where vehicle miles per gallon of 2003 and 2004 model year vehicles were overestimated because of what AAA has referred to as "outdated 30-year-old EPA tests."

"New car buyers soon see that their experience with mileage often falls short of EPA estimates," said Steve Mazor, principal automotive engineer. "It's not a case of `your mileage results may vary'. We know that, in most cases, `your results WILL vary'."
The current EPA tests were established in the late 1970s and do not take into account higher speed limits on many interstates and increased congestion nationwide. And they fail to address many real-world issues.  For example, the tests are conducted with air conditioners off.

AAA admits that its test drive data is "neither standardized nor scientific," yet it asserts the data may be more meaningful to consumers than the EPA numbers as they make car-buying decisions.  The organization doesn't suggest that its numbers take the place of the current EPA reports.  But it does suggest that the current system be fixed. 

Data released by AAA seems to reinforce that notion.  For example, a mainstream vehicle like the 2004 model year Toyota Corolla carried an EPA mileage rating of 32 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway, but AAA opined that 28.9 mpg is a better estimate.  Similarly, a 2004 Chevrolet Trailblazer with an EPA rating of 15/21 garnered an AAA mileage prediction of just 13.6 mpg.  In all the study examined cited the federal mileage estimates for 75 commonly available vehicles and found the EPA estimates were inaccurate for every one of them.

"We believe consumers should have the most accurate information possible when it comes to expected gas mileage of the vehicles they purchase," said Mazor. "This would be accomplished by requiring EPA to use 'real world' tests in setting federal mileage estimates."   

To that end, the "Fuel Efficiency Truth-in-Advertising Act of 2005," which would require EPA to update its miles per gallon testing procedures, has been introduced in Congress and has gained AAA backing.  The legislation has bipartisan support in the United States Congress and is sponsored by U.S. Representative Nancy Johnson (R-CT) and U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ).

However, unless the legislation offers auto manufacturers relief from the government-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which dictate minimum standards for overall fuel economy, you can bet the proposal will be fought tooth-and-nail by auto manufacturers.  Despite the perception of "high" gasoline prices, many manufacturers are struggling to meet those fuel efficiency bogeys in light of consumer preference for bigger, more powerful vehicles.

Formerly based in Boston, Tom Ripley now covers the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Lower Gas Prices Likely?

While we drivers suffer at the gas pump, the U.S. refining industry believes it is now in a Golden Age.  With gasoline demand outstripping domestic production for the foreseeable future, the result for the oil refiners is sustained profitability because profit margins are dictated by high-priced import sources of oil. However, a new report from management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton says that shifts in consumer behavior, government regulations and auto technology could drastically lower demand for gasoline, resulting in significantly lower gasoline prices.  While that would erode oil industry profitability, it is unlikely that many consumer tears would be shed over that.

Historically, the two factors that determine demand, vehicle miles driven and vehicle fleet fuel-efficiency, have changed in response to consumer priorities and the external environment, otherwise known as gasoline price changes. But according to the management consulting firm, unexpected shifts in these factors could put a crimp in demand for gasoline.

The firm created three potential scenarios and analyzed the potential impact of each of them on the refining industry. In each of the scenarios -- a sustained gasoline price increase at the pump, regulatory changes, and successful adoption of new auto technologies -- consumers would seek out, and auto makers would provide, more fuel-efficient vehicles, significantly lowering demand for gasoline.
Let's look at each of the three:

In Scenario 1, consumers would continue to pay high prices at the pump, due to fundamental or geopolitical impacts on crude oil price or refining structural changes. In the short term, the firm theorized that drivers would drive fewer miles.  In the medium-term, drivers would trade down to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. And depending on how quickly the price changes in this scenario, gasoline demand could fall below domestic supply as soon as 2007.

In Scenario 2, changes in government CAFE fuel economy requirements would force light trucks to meet the same standards as cars by 2015. This would substantially change how and what we drive, because as car manufacturers reach the limit on gasoline technology, they will turn increasingly to diesel engines to enable them to meet the new mandates while continuing to sell highly profitable trucks and SUVs. In such a scenario, impact on gasoline prices could be substantial in the long-term, though slower to take root, but it is likely the diesel proportion of new vehicle sales would reach 46 percent by 2015, and gasoline demand would fall short of domestic production as early as 2010.

Finally, in Scenario 3, continuing technology advancements or changes in consumer consciousness would result in increased penetration of fuel-efficient hybrids, which could represent as much as 80 percent of all new vehicles by 2016. The shift to hybrids would create a substantially more fuel-efficient average fleet, and, depending on the rate of adoption, gasoline demand could fall short of production by 2010.

While the authors acknowledge that none of these scenarios is likely to occur exactly as laid out, elements of each could affect the future market for both fuel and autos, noted Booz Allen Vice President Robert Lukefahr. So don't make a long-term vehicle choice on a short-term fuel price trend.  You could well regret it.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has been tracking fuel prices and auto industry trends since the 1970s.

Battling for Space

Since many commuters feel like they live in their cars these days, they are seeking home-like conveniences and entertainment options.  And the consumer electronics companies are more than ready to accommodate them.  There's only one problem - space.  In most cars and SUVs, there's just not enough room for all the electronic gizmos that could be offered, so there is a silent battle going on, the battle for interior room, not for people, but for their electronics.

From telematics to back-seat entertainment systems, the vehicle is fast becoming a mobile media center on wheels capable of managing content and information for entertainment, productivity and safety. According to Telematics Research Group (TRG), DVD-entertainment systems, in-vehicle phones, navigation systems and satellite radios are bright spots in a growing field. TRG predicts the installation rate for many of these systems to approach 50 percent of global vehicle sales by the end of the decade.

Premium audio systems are leading this trend, but other devices are quickly coming into the picture. Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation systems, portable media players like iPods, Bluetooth phone kits, and vehicle tracking systems are rapidly becoming available from both the automakers and aftermarket suppliers.

"The automotive industry is putting more resources into the design of the interior," says Phil Magney, president and principal analyst of TRG. "OEMs are optimizing this space for entertainment systems with components matched to meet the acoustic properties of the vehicle. And to better handle the flow of content within the vehicle, automakers have begun using fiber optic networks to better distribute large amounts of digital content."

The major auto manufacturers sell branded audio components with multifunction capabilities. The latest high-end systems from Acura, DaimlerChrysler, BMW, and Toyota have built-in Bluetooth with their audio and navigation "head" units (the primary electronic brain of each device.) Thinking further out of the box are BMW and Smart who offer consumers an interface to their Apple iPods.

To stimulate the aftermarket for these devices, the Consumer Electronics Association recently announced the adoption of the MOST (Media Oriented Systems Transport) in-vehicle network standard that will allow aftermarket products to integrate with factory OEM radios, telematics, and video. Retailers who sell automotive aftermarket products are also stepping up their commitment into these categories, promoting navigation systems, Bluetooth phone kits, portable music interfaces and in-vehicle media player interfaces. Best Buy, the largest North American consumer electronics retailer, recently tripled its shelf-space for the category.

One of the hottest categories is in-vehicle kits that facilitate hands-free use of cell phones while driving. Using Bluetooth and/or docking stations, these devices also include voice recognition and many play through the vehicle's audio system. This trend is being stimulated by new regulations that prohibit the use of cell phones while driving in some states.

In the future are devices that will immediately synchronize with your in-home computer and entertainment systems.  That way if you have a song or movie saved on your computer at home, it can immediately become available in your car, minivan or SUV.

Driving Today contributor Tom Ripley is based in Villefranche, France, where he reports on the automotive industry and the human condition.

Riding on Air

Today you want to take your BMW 3-Series for a 400-mile drive to a vacation home by a mountain lake, but next weekend you'd like to drive that same BMW in a local Sports Car Club of America autocross competition. Does that present a problem? It does if you'd like to make that long drive to the mountain lake in comfort or if you want to win the autocross, because with a standard suspension, if you want to do one, you simply can't do the other.

Until now, that is. The Praxis line of adjustable, performance, air-suspension systems allows the driver to control performance -- on the road or at the track -- without the need for tools or time in the shop. And while you might not be interested in competing in any auto-related events in the next few weeks, the technology also presages a future in which suspensions can be adjusted -- or even adjust themselves -- depending upon driving conditions. For example, think of a sport utility vehicle that is tuned for great on-pavement ride and handling, but also has a suspension that adjusts to give it more suspension travel and softer springing when it is moving slow in off-road mode. The technology is nearly in place to make that a reality.

How does Praxis work? It employs multi-rate air-spring technology, coupled with the Intelliride control-system and externally-adjustable monotube dampers supplied by H&R Springs to allow the driver to rapidly select the ride-height, spring-rate and damping. A simple touch of a cockpit mounted control button and a simple damper adjustment at each corner places the vehicle into one of three fully-tuned operating modes.

Currently there are Praxis systems for the Subaru WRX, Ford Mustang and BMW 3-Series. Each delivers the drivers a choice of suspension tuning. For example, the BMW system for the 3-Series features three modes -- Touring, Sport and Track. Touring mode provides ride and handling comparable to a base BMW 3-Series vehicle. The original ride-height, spring-rate and damping produce a balance that is perfect for daily commutes or highway touring.

Sport mode dramatically steps up handling responsiveness, allowing the vehicle to perform much like the highly developed M-3 model. Ride-height is lowered, while spring-rate and damping are increased to significantly reduce body motion and sharpen steering response. Sport mode allows the enthusiast to tackle a favorite twisty road while enjoying the pleasures of a tuned, responsive chassis.

Track mode, the ultimate performance setting, is appropriate for a variety of amateur track events. In this setting, the vehicle is dramatically lowered, while spring-rate and damping are increased to track appropriate levels. Track setting is not recommended for extended street driving.

The Praxis system for Mustang is also tri-modal, but in addition to the Touring and Track modes, a Drag mode optimizes drag strip performance by adjusting spring-rates and ride-heights "on-the-fly" to optimize launch traction and high-speed aerodynamics.

"Our systems expand the operating range of the BMW and Mustang, while avoiding the compromises associated with typical aftermarket suspension upgrades. The adjustability of the Praxis system allows the amateur motor sports enthusiast to have one vehicle that is an equally competent daily driver and track vehicle," said John Vincent, managing director, Praxis Advanced Suspensions. "The Praxis development process harnesses the engineering talents of the global Bridgestone organization to deliver a fully tuned and optimized suspension system that has been designed and tested to OEM standards. For example, the performance of the Praxis fitment for the BMW 3-Series will be validated through testing at the challenging N