SAE World Congress | OEMs Continue Push for High-Octane Gas

Source: By Tom Murphy, Wards Auto • Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2016

DETROIT – Automakers are turning up the volume in their campaign for higher-octane fuel, Honda is targeting thermal efficiency of future engines as high as 50%, V-8s will stick around and the outlook for automatic transmissions with more than 10 forward speeds appears bleak.

Those are some of the key points made by powertrain decision makers in a “Powering the Possibilities” panel session at SAE World Congress here last week, in addition to GM’s Dan Nicholson taking a swipe at the TeslaModel 3.

“These speakers are responsible for powertrains delivered to 28 million vehicles per year,” moderator Jeff Hemphill, chief technical officer at Schaeffler Group USA, says in introducing executives from Fiat ChryslerFord,General Motors and Honda, as well as supplier AVL.

Although representing different companies, consensus came quickly as Nicholson, GM’s vice president-global propulsion systems, urged the oil industry to introduce higher-octane gasoline and make it widely available.

“I’ve been saying it for a year and it’s still true,” says Nicholson. “Higher octane, according to Dept. of Energy studies and other studies, shows a proven low-cost enabler to carbon-dioxide reduction.”

And while fuel rated at 98 RON or 100 RON is perceived to be more expensive, Nicholson contends it is a cheap, well-to-wheels solution that will result in improved real-world mileage.

Octane is an indicator of gasoline’s resistance to ignite when compressed in the cylinder. The higher the octane rating, the less likely an engine’s propensity to knock. Knocking puts extremely high pressures on engine components, and the damage can be severe. As a result, engine management systems today incorporate knock sensors to adjust ignition timing when necessary.

Fuel with higher octane greatly reduces many of these concerns, and there’s another important benefit: “You can raise compression ratio and everything else,” says Tony Ockelford, director-product and business strategy at Ford Powertrain.

“Raise the compression ratio and you are raising the efficiency of the engine,” he says. “One thing everyone on the panel would agree: 100 RON, if ever you could get there, is a nice place.”

Oil refiners generally have resisted higher octane levels because of the added cost and because most consumers buy regular unleaded, or 87-octane. Meanwhile, 100 RON fuel is readily available across Europe, says AVL Executive Vice President Uwe Grebe.

But the topic may be revisited as automakers, the EPA and NHTSA begin a mid-term evaluation of CAFE standards this year.

“The only way we will get there is if we continue to push and find ways of working with authorities and other industries and do it in a collaborative way,” Ockelford says. “I think we have a responsibility to continue that push.”

Increased efficiency for all engines is reducing fuel consumption, which is hurting profit streams for oil companies, says Bob Lee, head of global powertrain coordination for FCA. But mid-grades and premium fuels are more profitable, so Lee is hopeful oil companies will see higher octane levels as an opportunity.

“I think the solution is there from a technology standpoint,” he says.

But if consumers understand the resulting fuel-economy gains, will they pay more for higher-octane fuel and if so, how much more? “We need to find balance, but I think it’s possible,” Lee says.