“The way for the industry to close the gap on fuel economy isn’t hybrid powertrains,” says John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America. “They’re expensive, complicated and they create a challenge with margins and profit.”


And according to Peter Marks, the outgoing chairman and CEO of auto supplier Bosch LLC, “There will be internal-combustion engines for decades to come. The engineers are excited about the possibilities, which includes downsizing engines so they’re better able to meet lower-emission targets [such as 54.5 mpg for the U.S. by 2025].” An affordable five-passenger sedan delivering 50 mpg on the highway? No problem, these guys say.


There’s a clear pattern here: Automakers, particularly diesel-loving German ones, but also the domestics, Japanese and Koreans, are seeing new possibilities in the tried-and-true internal-combustion engine. They’re making the old dog do some new tricks, with turbocharging (of downsized engines), direct injection, variable valve timing, lightweighting (carbon fiber, for instance) and clean diesels. And, as long as you don't use too much carbon fiber, you can get 40 to 50 mpg from a car that is pretty cheap, because it’s neither a hybrid nor a battery vehicle.


Ford gained 20 percent in fuel economy — and 35 percent in performance — when it went from 4.6 liters to 3.5 in the bestselling F150 truck. On the Focus economy car, a switch from a 1.6-liter engine to a 1.0 liter yielded a similar power increase — and 15 to 20 percent fuel savings. The premium on cleaner gas engines is about half of what hybridization costs.


The U.S. Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars put out a “Case for Technology Neutral Public Policy” report Nov. 4 authored by Norm Mineta, commerce and transportation secretaries under Bush. The report says that if we replaced our current motor pool with high-efficiency gas and diesel cars, we could reduce gas consumption by 31 billion gallons a year — a 42 percent cut in imported oil. The basic message of the report is that gas vehicles can be really clean, and the Department of Energy shouldn’t be subsidizing only battery electric cars. According to Mineta, “The federal government should support a wide range of technologies that hold the most promising environmental and commercial opportunities...”


The report, as the New York Times pointed out, left out a few things in comparing EVs to internal-combustion — including which grid is charging the EVs (the Midwest is filthy, but California a lot cleaner), or the emissions produced by the gas cars. It also cited a three-year-old MIT battery study, and there’s been a lot of progress since then.  


The “tech neutral” thing comes up a lot with legislators critical of the clean energy subsidies handed out under President Barack Obama, which have clear favorites — battery EVs over hydrogen, for instance. DOE Secretary Steven Chu has gone out of his way to defund hydrogen programs.


Interestingly, the coalition and its members (which include turbocharging king Honeywell and BorgWarner as well as Bosch) aren’t calling for diesel or turbo subsidies — they want a “level playing field” which could mean cutting EV loans and programs. But the alternatives are getting their federal day in the sun with the four-year, $24.5 million Project ACCESS (Advanced Combustion Concepts — Enabling Systems and Solutions), with funding that includes a grant of up to $12 million from the DOE. The goal is to achieve a 30 percent fuel efficiency jump.


So what has the internal combustion resurgence meant on the ground? Diesel, for instance, has never captured a big share of the U.S. market, and the tech has never enjoyed high levels of subsidy here, as it does in Europe (especially France, where they’re 70 percent of the market). Bosch is hoping that diesel will reach just a 10 percent North American market share by 2015. Diesel definitely has some advantages, including 30 percent better fuel economy overall, huge driving range (up to 800 miles) and widespread availability (it’s in 52 percent of American gas stations).


Diesels were starting to make a comeback around 2008, but then the economy tanked and fuel prices (of both gasoline and diesel) spiked. Diesel lost a modest price advantage at the pumps, and many clean diesel projects were canceled. The fuel is on an uphill trajectory now: 30 percent of consumers say they’d consider a clean diesel as of August 2011, versus just 13 percent in 2006.


On European cars with a diesel option, such as the VW Jetta and Audi A3, 35 percent of American consumers are now checking the box. Chevrolet is set to offer a diesel option on the Cruze (right) in 2013, and that same year Chrysler will have a common rail diesel in the Jeep Grand Cherokee.


But I don’t expect to see diesels dominate in the American market anytime soon — we’re too set in our ways, and hybrids and EVs have captured more of the public’s attention. Bosch predicts that we might have 3.1 million EVs of all types — hybrids, plug-in-hybrids and battery electrics — being sold annually by 2020. But since the world vehicle market (including trucks) could top 107 million by then, the numbers aren’t huge. In 2020, only 0.9 percent of light vehicles (less than six tons) will be electric cars or plug-in hybrids, and 2.2 percent hybrids, the company says.


You have to contrast that with the bullish projections of the Electrification Coalition, which thinks that 75 percent of all the vehicle miles traveled by 2040 will be “electric miles.” The truth may be somewhere between these two poles. And the most important driver? Gas prices, for sure. Here’s Peter Marks of Bosch on our automotive future:


Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Forget electric vehicles: Here come the 50-mpg gas and diesel cars
Electric cars get all the love and the federal money, say diesel and turbo advocates — and they want a level playing field.