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Ford foresees steady fuel efficiency gains

Ford is cranking up fuel economy through green technologies as it designs the next generation of its EcoBoost and electric drive technologies, says the CTO of Ford's advanced engineering.

Rather than big surprises, expect a stream of technology improvements coming from Ford Motor's labs which, when added together, will deliver 5 to 10 percent gains in fuel efficiency in the next few years.

At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Monday, Ford introduced the latest Ford Focus, which is due in early 2011 and sports a 10 to 20 percent better fuel economy than the current model. The company also has plans to expand its line of hybrids, introduce an all-electric Ford Focus in 2011, and offer plug-in hybrids in 2012.

Making refinements to gasoline, diesel, and electric drive technologies will allow Ford to keep the fuel economy of its cars on an upward trajectory, according to Gerhard Schmidt, the chief technology officer for Ford's research and advanced engineering.

"There are a lot of steps which, sometimes from an external point of view, look small, but it all adds up to something that is really significant," Schmidt said from the Auto Show. "We can get 5 to 10 percent improvement based on the existing architectures."

Schmidt's lab at Ford is responsible for initially developing EcoBoost, which is now being rolled out across many Ford models. It uses turbo charging and direct injection to boost the power of gasoline engines, allowing Ford to use smaller engines and improve fuel economy. Gerhard said that Ford engineers are now working on the second generation.

In the area of electrification, Ford does not anticipate a breakthrough that will radically alter the cost or energy density of auto batteries. But there are significant efficiency gains by optimizing the power electronics that manage the mechanical systems in cars, Gerhard indicated.

Ford can also optimize gasoline engines to work with batteries and improve efficiency through aerodynamics and smart recharging, he said. Engineers are even looking at reusing waste heat from cars to inch up fuel economy.

Further out, fuel cells offer the promise of a similar range to what gasoline and diesel cars have today. But the technology is far more complicated than hybrids and there isn't the fueling infrastructure, Gerhard said. Ford expects to test out fuel cells in limited volume in 2015 through a partnership with Daimler.

"I'm still convinced that there's a place for fuel cell technology when you look to the future where fossil fuels are not available in the quantity that is needed and battery technology only has limited mileage," he said.