Automakers Go Electric, Even if Gas Is Cheap

Source: By BILL VLASIC, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2016

From left, a 2017 Ford Fusion V6 Sport, a Ford F150 Raptor and a Ford Fusion Energi Platinum at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Credit Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times 
DETROIT — While American consumers were taking advantage of low gas prices to buy trucks and sport utility vehicles in large numbers, some automakers delayed investing in slower-selling electrified vehicles.

But with increases in federal fuel-economy standards looming in 2017, car companies are hustling to bring out hybrid and electric models to help them meet the new rules — even though electrified vehicles make up only 2 percent of overall sales.

The federal government has mandated corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. But companies need to meet an interim standard of about 37 m.p.g. by next year.

Now, despite declining gas prices, automakers are showing off a raft of electric and hybrid models this week at the annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

On Monday, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles introduced a plug-in hybrid-electric version of its new minivan model, the Pacifica, making it the first hybrid vehicle in the Italian-American automaker’s lineup.

The Pacifica joined several other new electrified models introduced by other automakers at the auto show, including models from Ford Motor Company and General Motors.

Fiat Chrysler has been an industry laggard in the push for electrified cars, relying heavily in recent years on sales of Ram pickups and Jeep sport utility vehicles to drive its growth in the American market.

The results, at least financially, have been stellar. Profits have surged and market share has expanded at the expense of Fiat Chrysler’s rivals.

But Fiat Chrysler’s chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, acknowledged on Monday that his company needed more high-mileage models, and the hybrid minivan was a good starting point.

“The 2025 numbers are very high numbers,” Mr. Marchionne said at a news conference. “You look around the show at all the hybrids and the electrification as being a solution to the rules in 2025.”

The hybrid minivan is powered by a battery charge that can cover 30 miles of driving, at which point a gasoline engine kicks in to extend its range. The company estimates that the vehicle will achieve an equivalent of 80 m.p.g. in city driving.

One hybrid alone will not improve Fiat Chrysler’s corporate average fuel numbers enough to meet the coming standards. Last year, the company’s fleetwide average was about 22 miles per gallon — making it one of the least fuel-efficient companies in the industry.

Mr. Marchionne said the company would improve its average by continuing to improve the mileage of its conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, as well as by adding hybrids.

Fiat Chrysler is also preparing for stricter federal rules on pollutants by purchasing emissions credits from competitors like Tesla, which can easily meet the standards by virtue of its all-electric product lineup.

Mr. Marchionne said that Fiat Chrysler had to balance how much to spend on new technologies that improve fuel efficiency and cut pollution with the opportunity to buy credits that help it meet emissions standards.

The Chrysler 2017 Pacifica hybrid minivan was unveiled on Monday. Credit Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

“We will get technology, but at a price,” he said. “The cost associated with the plug-in minivan is not inconsequential.”

Buying emissions credits from other carmakers is part of the overall effort to comply with government standards. “It would be nonsensical for us not to utilize that market,” he said.

Other automakers are also adding vehicles to their lineups that can help improve fleetwide fuel-economy numbers.

Mark Reuss, head of global product development at General Motors, said his company was improving fuel economy across its lineup with smaller, more efficient gasoline engines, aerodynamic designs and reductions in vehicle weight.

But G.M. still needs new vehicles like the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt to make substantial gains in corporatewide fuel economy.

“It is a zero-emission vehicle, so there are a lot of credits for vehicles like the Bolt,” Mr. Reuss said. “Our plan is to improve fuel economy on all fronts, from taking weight out of new models to introducing game-changers like the Bolt.”

The average fuel economy of vehicles sold in the United States had been improving steadily until gas prices plunged to $2 a gallon last year.

Consumers have opted to buy more trucks and S.U.V.s than passenger cars in 2015, resulting in greater overall fuel consumption.

In December, the average fuel economy of a new vehicle sold in the United States was 24.9 miles per gallon, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

That was the first time in two years that the average fell below 25 miles per gallon, according to figures compiled by the institute.

Fiat Chrysler’s chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, said the company would continue to improve the mileage of its gasoline-powered vehicles and would add hybrids. Credit Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times 

One analyst said that automakers could hardly be blamed for meeting high demand for pickups and S.U.V.s, even if it set back their fuel-efficiency goals.

“The government is regulating what automakers have to produce to meet new standards, but it isn’t what consumers want to buy,” said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with the firm Autotrader.

More electric cars and hybrids are coming to the market this year, including a new version of the Toyota Prius hybrid.

On Monday, Ford Motor displayed its Fusion midsize passenger car, which also is offered in a hybrid version and a plug-in variation.

Ford executives said the company was trying to offer electrification options on as many of its vehicles as possible. That way it could respond more quickly to shifts in consumer tastes if gas prices rose.

“Every company has to work hard to achieve these new standards,” Ms. Krebs said. “Some, like Fiat Chrysler, need to do more than others because they have been relying on trucks and Jeeps to keep their sales growing.”

New fuel-economy rules are not the only area where automakers and federal regulators are grappling with vehicle improvements.

Companies have been meeting with officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently to come up with voluntary guidelines to improve vehicle safety. The talks follow record numbers of recalls in the industry, and aggressive enforcement actions by regulators — including the imposition of big fines for safety violations.

Fiat Chrysler, for example, has been hit with $175 million in fines for delaying recalls and failing to follow reporting rules.

“As unpleasant as I find these fines, I understand what prompted them,” said Mr. Marchionne, adding that he expected more cooperation between auto companies and the safety agency in the future.

Reuters, citing company officials, reported on Monday that an agreement with regulators on voluntary safety guidelines was imminent. But a spokesman for the safety agency, Gordon Trowbridge, said no accord had been concluded.

“We’re hopeful we have something to announce soon, but nothing has been finalized,” he said.