Fuel-saving idle elimination coming to the masses

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By Michael Strong

GM’s move to make start/stop technology standard on the 2014 Chevy Malibu is the first ripple of the wave of U.S. vehicles that will be outfitted with the technology as automakers search for more ways to improve gas mileage.

It comes with a variety of names, including a start-stop system, idle elimination, idle-stop-go and micro-hybrid.

“Engine stop-start isn’t a brand new technology, but the latest systems benefit from significant advances made in the last few years,” said John Nielsen, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Repair.

“This technology is only going to gain momentum as vehicle manufactures work to meet the more stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set for 2016.”

The idea behind start/stop is that the engine shuts down when stopped for a period of time, then when engaged it starts up again. Ideally the driver would never notice it, but with past systems drivers have complained about delayed engine response, excessive noise, shuddering and shaking with systems.

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Most vehicles with the system have a shut off switch allowing drivers to simply turn it off if they’re unhappy with it. The Malibu will not have a kill switch. It’s the first high volume, non-hybrid to not offer the option of a kill switch.

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But with corporate average fuel economy numbers rising in the coming years, companies have been working diligently to refine the technology. This system is expected to improve the Malibu’s fuel economy by 5 percent in city driving.

The first non-hybrid stop-start systems in the U.S. market arrived on high-end vehicles from BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. For the 2013 model year, Jaguar joined the group. It’s not surprising that European and Japanese vehicles would lead the way on bringing the technology to the U.S. as it's estimated that 40 to 45 percent of vehicles in those places use the technology.

While it was once tied to expensive vehicles, the technology is running across all makes and models in 2014. The new BMW 4-Series, 1-Series and 3-Series will have it, as will the Jaguar F-Type, Audi RS7, Ford Fusion and Mazda3. Even trucks will start to see some systems: Dodge is adding stop-start to its V6-powered Ram 1500 pickup for a one mile per gallon fuel economy improvement.

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Lux Research, a research and advisory firm providing strategic advice and ongoing intelligence for emerging technologies, predicts that more than 8 million vehicles in North America will be equipped with engine stop-start systems by 2017.

Additionally, IHS Automotive predicts more than 20 percent of vehicles built in North America will have the system by 2017, which is four times higher than the current number of vehicles.

Knowing the public’s perception of the system, GM spent a lot of time to perfect its version before putting it in the Malibu. Besides issues related to noise and vibration, shutting off the engine also impacts the car’s other systems, like lights, air conditioning, etc.

To avoid problems, the Malibu’s stop-start consists mainly of a beefed-up starter and a small auxiliary battery in the trunk. The extra battery is there so drivers won’t notice a momentary dimming of lights or slowing of the air-conditioning fan when the engine stops and starts.

The car uses the same electronic controls as several hybrids GM already builds. Those vehicles are widely considered industry leaders for smooth, unobtrusive operation.

Among other things, the system is programmed so it doesn’t keep cycling on and off in stop-and-go driving in heavy traffic. It also measures the inside and outside temperatures to keep the passenger compartment comfortable.

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One reason the technology hasn’t caught on is that it isn’t necessarily cheap. The systems cost a few hundred dollars, but drivers can make it up, according to AAA. If gasoline costs $3.75 per gallon, the owner of a car that normally gets 20 mpg and is driven 12,000 miles per year would save an estimated $167 per year in fuel costs if the vehicle were equipped with an engine stop-start system. In this case, the system would pay for itself in less than two years and offer ongoing savings thereafter.

Another reason for the lack of promotion is that the Environmental Protection Agency, which helps determine mileage ratings for cars and trucks, doesn’t perform an appropriate test to help determine the system’s effectiveness and its impact on mileage ratings.