As fuel-economy standards get tougher, auto companies are peering into a future where next-generation electric vehicles and advanced hybrids beckon. But these days, Ford Motor (F) executives have one eye on the future and one on the past. Ford is dusting off a host of old ideas for boosting gas mileage and slashing emissions. Some of these concepts were dreamed up decades ago, deployed in lots of small European cars, and vigorously promoted by environmentalists. But in Detroit, the technology has mostly sat on the shelf.
Not anymore. Ford now emphasizes fuel economy across its whole lineup. And for its 2011 Explorer the company is making prominent use of such "retro" green technology as lighter-weight steel body parts and "direct injection" engine technology. This technique, which dates to the 1940s, feeds gas and air straight into the engine cylinder instead of premixing it, resulting in a more efficient fuel burn. Together, the technologies could allow the new Explorer to reach highway fuel economy of 30 miles per gallon, upstaging Toyota's (TM) Highlander hybrid, which gets 25 mpg. "There is a lot we can do to get meaningful fuel-economy improvements without going all the way into electrics," says Ford's global product development chief, Derrick Kuzak.
Ford and its U.S. rivals could have acted much sooner. In 2003 the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published a paper explaining how a redesigned Ford Explorer could achieve 28 mpg instead of the measly 15 mpg that Explorers got at the time. In addition to light bodies and direct injection, the UCS list included six-speed transmissions and turbocharging, a century-old technology in which waste energy from the exhaust helps drive the engine turbine. Ford's head of product development at the time quipped that "the UCS doesn't design vehicles for customers, and we do."
Now the Explorer team might as well be working off the UCS checklist. To build the 2011 model, it will use the same engineering platform as the Ford Taurus, rather than a truck chassis. And it's shaving more than 150 pounds off the body with lighter-weight steel. Many Explorers will ship with a new "EcoBoost" engine, which uses direct injection and turbocharging, plus sophisticated software, to get maximum horsepower. This will add a slight premium to the price. And in place of today's 4.6-liter V-8 engine, the new SUVs will run on a dainty 2-liter, 4-cylinder design, producing a tire-burning 275 horsepower, vs. 210 hp for the larger model. "Detroit hasn't so much lacked innovation as it has lacked the resolve or mandate to apply it," says David Friedman, research director of clean vehicles at UCS and a co-author of the 2003 paper.
Direct injection and turbocharging have long been used to boost acceleration in sportscars from Audi, Mazda, Saab, BMW, Mercedes (DAI), and Subaru. Now all of them, plus Ford and others, are harnessing these techniques to boost fuel economy in family cars. And Ford plans to resurrect one more fuel-saving technique, called stop-start, which has been around since the 1990s and is already used in hybrids in the U.S. and in European cars. It allows the engine to shut down at stoplights and in traffic and restart when the driver taps the accelerator. "Acceptance of this has gone way up in the last five years," says Mike Marshall, a director at J.D. Power & Associates. (MHP) "And so has the willingness of consumers to pay for it."