Automakers Push for Single Fuel Grade

95 octane would replace regular, midgrade and premium

WASHINGTON -- The big three automakers—General Motors (GM), Ford and Fiat Chrysler—are pushing for the United States to adopt one fuel grade.

The companies have partnered with the United States Council for Automotive Research to campaign for a single, 95-octane grade of fuel, which would replace the current 87-octane regular, 88- to 90-octane midgrade and 91- to 94-octane premium, Automotive News reported. This would put the United States in line with Europe, giving it the same octane fuel as Europe’s regular grade.

The automakers’ proposal would be to phase out the current octane grades over time, GM spokesman Tom Read told Automotive News. Under the plan, gasoline with a higher octane than 95 would still be available as a type of superpremium grade.


Making a Case

Dan Nicholson, vice president of global propulsion systems for Detroit-based GM, testified before a House subcommittee April 13 that adopting 95 octane would be one of the least costly ways to not only improve fuel economy but also decrease greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. Premium-grade gasoline typically costs about 50 cents per gallon (CPG) more than regular grade, but switching to a single higher octane would lower fuel costs overall for consumers, Nicholson said.

The day before his congressional testimony, Nicholson sat on a panel at the SAE International World Congress Experience and told attendees that 95-octane fuel would bring less than a 3% increase in fuel costs but deliver a 3% boost in fuel economy.

“Don't think of the premium fuel that is available today,” Nicholson said. “If it is done in the right framework, it could have a lot of value for customers at a low rate if we pick the right octane level. If you go too high, it'll get expensive. But if you pick the right one, it'll actually work for customers.”

Co-panelist David Filipe, vice president of powertrain engineering for Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., agreed that the higher-octane fuel must be affordable for consumers.

"That's been something that has been important to us. How do we do this without having a big impact on the customer?" he asked. Filipe said 95 octane must not increase fuel costs more than 5 CPG.

Automotive News said that while a 3% improvement in fuel economy might sound modest, it is sizable compared to the tenths of a percent that engineers commonly eke out from design changes to vehicles.

"Fuels and engines have always been a system. That's how you have to think about it,” Nicholson said. “I think America deserves as good a gasoline as Europe.”

Automakers are pushing for higher-octane gasoline as they introduce vehicles with smaller, more powerful turbocharged engines into their lineups, along with other fuel-economy savers such as stop-start engine technology and lowering the weight of vehicles, known as lightweighting. That said, vehicles with turbocharged engines often carry a premium to those with larger, less fuel-efficient engines.

The EPA Connection

The push by automakers for higher-octane fuel comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced its intent to revise greenhouse-gas emission standards for 2022-2025 model-year vehicles, calling the current 54.5-mile-per-gallon average fleet fuel economy target set by the Obama administration “not appropriate.” The EPA under the Trump administration has done so at the behest of automakers, who have argued that the past years’ low gasoline prices are pushing consumers toward less fuel-efficient SUVs and trucks, making it difficult to meet the current target.

"We have an opportunity to play a large role in offering consumers the most affordable option for fuel-economy improvement and greenhouse-gas reduction," Nicholson told the House subcommittee. "We believe a higher-efficiency gasoline solution with a higher Research Octane Number  is very important to achieving this."

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