Pity the poor American consumer. 70% of people tell AAA that fuel economy is important to them when choosing a new car. But 114% tell their elected representatives they don’t want to pay more money at the pump to support a carbon tax. Talk about contradictions! Automakers are trying everything they can think of to raise fuel economy — 10 speed transmissions, 48 volt mild hybrid systems, cylinder deactivation, variable compression ratios. Anything that will save the internal combustion engine from extinction is being tried. The latest idea floating around is higher octane gasoline.

higher octane gasoline

Why? Because engines designed to run on higher octane gasoline are more efficient. That means lower emissions and better fuel economy. What could possibly be wrong with that? Only this. Raising octane rating means the reformulated gasoline will cost more at the pump. Even if the extra miles per gallon more than offset the higher cost, Americans consider it Holy Writ that they are entitled to cheap gas. The backlash against more expensive gasoline could be fierce. “Ten cents a gallon more is probably palatable. A quarter risks customer acceptance,” said an industry executive who requested anonymity tells the Detroit Free Press.

At the latest SAE meeting in Detroit, Raj Nair, Ford’s head of technology and engineering, gave those in attendance a glimpse behind the higher octane curtain when he said “new fuel formulations” are a priority as his company works to reduce its environmental impact. His oblique reference to higher octane gasoline drew applause from the crowd.

The U.S. Department of Energy is working with automakers and oil companies on a project called Optima designed to reduce petroleum consumption by 30% according to SAE publication Automotive Engineering. “The general position is that (premium) is what automakers are thinking for the future octane level,” says Marie Valentine, senior engineer for energy and environmental research at Toyota.

“We don’t need a new fuel — we just need improved gasoline,” said David Brooks, General Motors’ director of global propulsion labs at a recent engineering conference. He said 114 octane was ideal from an engineering point of view but is probably too expensive for customers to accept. The last time I was at the track, 100 octane “race fuel” was $10 a gallon. Try putting that in your Stupid Duty with the 20 gallon tank!

Still, the industry is heading in that direction. Most gasoline in the U.S. today is between 87 and 94 octane. Europeans typically have access to 98 octane gasoline. Higher octane does improve performance. Cars running on 98 in Europe typically get 10% better fuel economy than similar cars in the US running on 94. The new Dodge Challenger SRT Demon produces 840 horsepower when running on 100 octane gasoline but “only” 808 horsepower on 91 octane fuel.

“Increasing octane could be the lowest cost way to raise fuel economy,” says another anonymous industry source. “It costs far less than developing a new transmission, for instance.” Mark Christie, vice president for engine engineering at Ricardo, a global enigineering consulting firm, says, “Most automakers are looking at higher compression to increase efficiency. Raising octane allows that with minimal other changes to the engine. It’s simpler and less expensive than adding new technologies and a building block to make those technologies even more effective.”

Automotive Engineering quotes GM’s global propulsion systems chief, Dan Nicholson, as saying, “Higher octane fuels are the cheapest CO2 reduction. Fuels and engines must be designed as a total system. It makes absolutely no sense to have fuel out of the mix.” He went on to say that higher octane gasoline “can be delivered very cost effectively.”

Read between the lines and higher octane gasoline is coming. Cars that run on regular today will run fine on higher octane premium and super premium but won’t see the efficiency and performance gains of engines developed specifically for those higher octane fuels. Look for the new fuels to start showing up down at the local Gas-N-Go in 2021. Also look for what is known today as “regular” to be eliminated from the offerings available.

AAA’s gas price monitor says today gasoline costs on average $2.42 for regular, $2.77 for midgrade, and $2.92 for premium. That’s a 50 cent per gallon swing from lowest to highest. Chances are, the new super fuels will be a lot closer to that top of that price range than the bottom, which could be just the trigger the public needs to dump internal combustion engines for good and switch to electric cars.

Source: Detroit Free Press