Premium is the New Regular: Automakers Want to Kill 87 Octane

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The automotive industry wants to make 95 octane gasoline the new normal for the United States and it has taken its case to Washington. On Friday, Dan Nicholson, General Motors’ vice president of global propulsion systems, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s environment subcommittee that switching to 95 octane would align the U.S. with Europe and is one of the most affordable ways to boost fuel economy and lower greenhouse emissions.

Affordable for automakers, that is. Because there is no reason to think your local gas station will suddenly do you a solid and price 95 octane lower just because 87 is gone.

Nicholson maintains that 95 octane would cost consumers far less in the long run, however. Automakers could implement higher compression ratios on new models, which sounds great and offers the potential for more-efficient engines, but what about all of those old models rocking lower compression rates? Surely those customers are getting burned.

“This will have customer value if it is done correctly. Don’t think of the premium fuel that is available today,” Nicholson said at the SAE International WCX World Congress Experience in Detroit one day before his meeting with the House subcommittee. “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. They can get around 3 percent fuel-economy improvement for less than 3 percent [cost].”

That sounds plausible on future automobiles but, again, it doesn’t speak to the people driving around in vehicles that don’t need 95 RON. The average car owner is keeping their vehicle longer than ever and being suddenly forced to buy more expensive gas sounds like a tough sell.

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

So 87 octane isn’t good enough for America? Well, Dan, there are millions of drivers with compression ratios below 10:1 that would disagree. We understand that improving engine efficiency is costly for automakers, but nobody wants to eat that cost against their will. Tack it onto those new engines, which people will have to put premium gas into anyway. But don’t make Joe Six-Pack dump premium gas into his 2007 Chevrolet Silverado.

According to Automotive News, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors, and Ford Motor Co., are working with the United States Council for Automotive Research to ditch all grades of gas that aren’t 95. In theory, minimizing options should also help to mitigate cost from the refineries.

David Filipe, vice president of Ford’s powertrain engineering, joined Nicholson to say 95 octane fuel must become more affordable for this strategy to work. “That’s been something that has been important to us. How do we do this without having a big impact on the customer?” he said. “We don’t want to put the burden onto the customer.”

Filipe explained the cost must not add more than 5 cents per gallon vs 87 octane. Presently, premium gas averages about 50 cents more per gallon and there is no way to ensure refiners can get that price down to sufficient levels until they’ve started producing it at higher volumes.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Jthorner Jthorner on Apr 23, 2018

    I'm with the car companies on this one. Having the same fuel standards as Europe make complete sense .... so the US probably is incapable of doing it.

  • Rrhyne56 Rrhyne56 on Apr 24, 2018

    "if it is done correctly" raise your hand if you think it'll be done correctly.

  • Lou_BC Question of the day: Anyone actually care to own an old TVR?
  • Bd2 First, this was totally predictable. 2nd, Genesis already does have hybrids in the form of a 48V mild hybrid, but more performance oriented (supercharged and turbocharged), so not really helping with regard to fuel consumption. 3rd, Hyundai's hybrid systems don't really help as there currently isn't one that would be suitable power-wise and the upcoming 2.5T hybrid system would have to be heavily reworked to accommodate a RWD/longitudinal layout. 4th, it seems that Genesis is opting to go the EREV route with the GV70 the first get the new powertrain.
  • Bd2 Jaguar's problem was chasing the Germans into the mid size and then entry-level/compact segments for volume, and cheapening their interiors while at it.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Aja8888 I expected that issue with my F150 starting at 52,000mi. luckily I had an extended warranty and it saved me almost $8,000. No more Fords for me, only Toyota.
  • Lou_BC I saw a news article on this got a different read on it. Ford wants to increase production of HD trucks AND develop hybrid and EV variants of the SuperDuty. They aren't scaling back EV production. Just building more HD's and EV variants of HD's .