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The fairytale of four-litre cars

Soon our cars will turn into perpetuum mobiles. Or not.

22/08/2013 07:34 | Comments: 

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Former car restorer, damper designer, rotary-engine guru and also an automotive engineer, but generally doesn’t talk much about his former activities. András is our mag’s Leatherman tool: when there’s a project no-one would poke with a stick, he’s the one usually assigned to carry it through. When he’s in Hungary, he works 16 hours daily, then every once in a while he disappears from the horizon. Last time he’s been seen in Auckland… Has a huge garage, lives with a girlfriend.

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The objective of using less fossil fuel, thus keeping our greenhouse as cool as possible is good. However, the way European lawmakers are trying to make this happen is pointless and harmful.

As recently reported, by 2020 all new cars within the European Union will be required to have a CO2 emission of 95 g/km or less. In plain terms that means a consumption of 4 l/100km – that is what all carmakers should be able to achieve within seven years unless they want to suffer the wrath (and related punitive fees) of the almighty EU. The reason is simple: the amount of CO2 emitted is directly related to the amount of petrol or diesel fuel, therefore in order to limit CO2 emissions carmakers must lower the fuel consumption of their models. The limit applies to the weighted average of all models and brands manufactured by an automotive group, including Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and the like. Way to go: let our wise lawmakers give big bad carmakers what they deserve.

What makes this standard idiotic

All consumption or emission figures quoted, measured and debated are calculated using the NEDC standard. This seemed like a useable standard at first, but by now it is obsolete and fully pointless. NEDC is as rigid and mechanical as it can get: engineers dyno the car as they do a few bursts of acceleration from under 50 kph, then drive the car at 70, 90 and 120 kph for a short while

At half throttle there are no standards to comply with

There is a bunch of weird rules that apply during these measurements, but I am not going to detail them here. These are the rules that allow turbocharged engines to yield far better results than naturally aspirated ones, or which make it worthwhile for engineers to come up with zillion-speed automatic gearboxes. Some claim carmakers are cheating the regulations by overinflating tyres, sealing all body gaps and developing rigged prototypes to achieve the data used for the dyno tests but I don't think they even need go to these extremes. All they have to do is optimise the operating range where their environmental performance is monitored. With today's performance figures this range is so narrow that if you drive at just half throttle you're already out of the bounds of the regulations. Many cars consistently stay below 3000rpm during testing. In fact, while doing the NEDC test cars never even reach 130 kph which is the standard highway speed throughout Europe. If the SHTF and consumption figures just don't work out well, engineers remap the engine to achieve the standards. This makes the engine pretty much undriveable but fear not: they will “update the software” (i.e. reload the original mapping) at the first servicing to make the car run healthy again.

Factory figures are far removed from reality

It means that in real life factory data no longer correspond to real life figures. With some cars all it takes is a little bit of concentrated effort to come close to the combined consumption figure, while others will need twice as much fuel no matter what you do. Here is why: there is a measurement standard which no longer correlates with reality and carmakers have learnt how to come up with artificially generated, favourable figures. It is this pretense all multi-national fleet purchases and several national taxation schemes are based upon. Even worse, these false figures force car manufacturers to conduct billion Euros' worth of dubious or even counterproductive development work.

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Why should we care?

Regulations have forced automakers to take drastic measures, especially in the premium segment. Porsche, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi are switching to small capacity turbocharged engines, using start-stop systems, electric power steering, tricky heat management control, low friction components and all sorts of clever stuff. I would hate to be an arse opposing progress but most of these developments are not exactly good for mechanical durability and/or ease of maintenance, and many of them are marketed without proper field testing. There will be a lot of unforeseen expenses in the future because of these rare-cooked developments.

Switched over to smaller turbocharged engines

It also means that if you want your BMW served with an inline six (it is only natural to expect a smooth running engine in your premium car for your hard earned cash) you can no longer opt for anything under 250 PS. Do you need this much power? Probably not, but you don't have a choice if you want your engine silky smooth. Or look at the other end of the automotive food chain: if you want a petrol-driven Dacia you can get the lame 1.2-litre engine or a 0.9-litre, three-cylinder turbo. With all honesty: that leaves you with diesels as the only viable option. Is this really the way of the future?

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These are the kinds of engines manufacturers are going to be focusing on in the next ten years or so. And yet, these engines are surely not going to comply with the 2020 regulations. No way. The four-litre car is an illusion, a physical impossibility unless we ban all heavy cars with large cross sectional areas and limit car use to highways and driving at 90 kph

There is no way 2020 standard can be met

Apart from hybrids, the best way to reduce fuel consumption / CO2 emissions is to opt for diesels. This is definitely the direction the European car industry is going. However diesels emit certain hazardous materials that should make us more cautious in utilising them until further notice. By the way, direct injection petrol engines emit particles similar to the microscopic soot particles passing through the filters of modern diesel engines. In short, automakers have been forced by nonsensical legal standards to spend several billions on developing engines that present a health risk of unknown extent.

Why it makes no sense to reduce fuel consumption ?

If someone needs to drive a thousand kilometres a month, and buys a car with half the consumption than their previous ride, you would think they would consume half as much fuel, right? Wrong. If you have ever replaced a gas guzzler with a frugal one you know that's not how it works. First, you realise you are saving a lot on your fuel bills. Then you begin to use your car more because it is so inexpensive. You don't mind driving over to the in-laws for the pruner. You are willing to take one-day trips to the nearest beach resort. And as for skiing you are happy to drive all the way to the French Alps with their affordable accommodation and ski passes because fuel costs peanuts anyway. And so you end up driving twice as much and thereby using just as much fuel as before. You don't drive as much as you need to: you drive as much as you can afford to. And this is not specific to Eastern Europe: I bet most people think the same way throughout the twenty-eight member states of the EU.

You use just as much fuel as before

Of course this is rubbish for all the commuters who need to drive a hundred kilometres every day, come rain or shine. But the thing is, as fuel prices hike, those who can no longer afford to finance the commute are forced to move closer to where they work, while those who can will not mind and will continue to fill up the car twice a week. Come rain or shine.

This thing is far more complex – not just for the individual but for the entire society – than you would imagine. Our decisions are mainly steered by the costs associated with motoring and we will strive to strike the best balance between the expenses and a lifestyle that makes us happy. It looks like the less fuel cars consume, the more frequently we use them.

People buy gas until their pockets run dry

This is not unfounded speculation, as clearly demonstrated by fuel use statistics from Germany. Unfortunately I couldn't find any data for the last couple of years in the analyses of the Umweltbundesamt (Federal Environmental Office), but it is highly revealing to see the years leading up to 2010. Federal figures for the period state the average consumption of passenger vehicles decreased from 9.2 l/100km (1991) to 7.5 l/100km (2010), while combined (petrol and diesel) fuel usage remained roughly identical: 65 billion litres in 1993, 66.5 billion litres in 2010. What has changed is the ratio of fuel types, with diesel fuel taking a definitive lead over petrol. This is reflected in new car registration data: in 2012 the share of petrol and diesel engined cars was roughly 50:50 which means diesels are marching forward at an incredible pace. Germans, thus, have the same mindset as us, Eastern Europeans: they buy gas until their pockets run dry. And that does not seem to happen any time soon.

So what should we do instead?

The conclusions of the Umweltbundesamt reflect great wisdom: while manufacturers are making superhuman efforts to reduce the consumption of their cars, there is an increase in mobility which offsets that reduction. In order to achieve real change you need to change the modal split, in other words, the share of vehicle types. You need to get people out of their cars and put them on motorbikes, scooters, bicycles and most of all, public transportation. The less fuel their cars consume the less motivated they will be to abandon them. That is why insisting on the reduction of specific consumption is such a silly direction. Once the European economy is back on its feet people will begin to buy more and more cars and use them more and more. If cars really consumed four litres, we would use them twice as often.

Increased mobility more or less offsets this effect

I am not saying we should take all pressure off automakers, because there are some positive results coming out of all this commotion. For one, people have developed some sort of consciousness about these problems, and those who care have a chance to buy cars that are far more environmentally friendly than ever before. But setting the threshold at 95 g/km is completely irrational. In my opinion the only way to comply with that (if there is a way at all) is to remove measurement standard even further from reality, which really makes no sense. Another direction would be the application of super credits which makes the entire system a complete dead end street. Electric or ultra low emission vehicles already earn their makers good points which they can use to lower their accumulative emissions rating far below the actual measured figures. Stakeholders are currently discussing how this could be further enhanced by 2020.

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I think the best way to reduce consumption and harmful emission is by driving less. By reducing our mobility needs. By finding a way to work efficiently from our homes and by supporting employment schemes that promote such work. By preferring local products and produces instead of having our goods shipped in from across the globe. And by finding more efficient ways to transport whatever still needs to be transported, whether ourselves or our food. I am certain such directions of optimisation would lead to far better environmental results than the EU whipping carmakers with the CO2-stick

Green is the trend

How you make people accept this is another matter. More and more of us have grown conscious of ecological issues and for a while green seemed to be the trend. Now, in 2013, I am not so sure any more. Maybe if petrol cost four Euros a litre. Or if lawmakers introduced a personal CO2 quota system. But more than anything, if there was a change in mindsets and people no longer wanted to work in the city while living in the suburbs. Of course you would need far more liveable cities for that to happen – but if this was enforced as strictly as the disciplining of car makers we just might get something achieved here.

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