$1 billion wasted on study of efficient cars

Feds shift gears to favor research on fuel cells powered by hydrogen

Thursday, March 7, 2002


American taxpayers have forked out more than $1 billion over the last nine years helping the Big Three automakers develop cars efficient enough to travel 80 miles on a single gallon of gas.

Yet with the U.S. Senate now debating a long-delayed energy bill, supporters of more stringent fuel-efficiency standards face a formidable task in persuading lawmakers to require new cars to average a mere 35 miles per gallon -- by 2013.

The debate in the Senate follows the Bush administration's abandonment of a 9-year-old fuel-efficiency research effort known as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, or PNGV.

Instead, Bush wants to launch a multidecade research program to develop a gasolineless car propelled by a hydrogen-powered fuel cell.

"A vision like this can transform everything -- the way industry and government work together, the kinds of fuels we use, and the kinds of cars we buy," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in announcing the program in January.

The Freedom Car program, though, has drawn fire from environmentalists, who say automakers are going back on their promise early in the Clinton administration to develop 80 mpg cars by 2004.

By embarking on a new research program, environmentalists charge, Bush is giving car companies an excuse to delay installation of fuel-efficient improvements -- the very improvements discovered with taxpayer-funded research.

"The big problem with PNGV is that it never stipulated that the Big Three actually mass-produce and sell those cars," said Alex Veitch of the Sierra Club. "The weak rules allowed the Big Three to make fancy prototypes. It did not make them produce clean cars. ... It turned into an excuse to avoid making progress on overall fuel economy."

Overall, fuel efficiency of the U.S. passenger fleet has decreased slightly in recent years as consumers bought more gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickups.

The efficiency required of new U.S. cars is the same as when this year's high school seniors were born: 27.5 mpg. SUVs, minivans and pickups must average just 20.7.

Environmental groups want Congress to order automakers to employ some gas-saving devices discovered over the last decade.

"There's a lot of value in investment in fuel cells in the long-term. But there's nothing for the short-term," said David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

How is it that the government spent all that money on technologies to save gasoline and protect the environment and now is hesitating to impose a seemingly modest fuel-efficiency standard?

The answers are multiple, but a chief one is the cost.

Putting the kind of lightweight materials and other innovations used in the prototypes into a mass-produced car is estimated to add $7,000 to $10,000 to the cost of a family sedan, said Bob Culver, executive director of the U.S. Council for Automotive Research, the Big Three-government research collaboration.

"We were pretty much there," Culver said of the technology. "The big problem is, they weren't cost-effective."

In announcing the Bush administration's change of course, Abraham agreed, saying the PNGV "wasn't moving a competitive automobile to the showroom."

As a member of the Senate, Abraham fought efforts to tighten fuel-efficiency standards, and was derisively referred to by environmentalists as "the senator from General Motors."

The fuel-cell technology Abraham is pursuing faces some stiff challenges. It's attractive because the hydrogen-powered fuel cells would employ a chemical reaction to produce energy, leaving water as the only waste product. Ultimately, the goal is to provide transportation without using fossil fuels.

For now, fuel cells are too expensive and big to fit into a passenger car. But there's a gas-saving alternative already available -- "hybrid" cars powered by a combination of a gasoline engine and an electric motor.

While American automakers only recently announced plans for such cars, Toyota's Prius sedan offers over 40 mpg and Honda's two-seat Insight can get 56 mpg. Both are big sellers in the Seattle area.

Hybrids aren't a total answer, though. What the Senate is arguing about is average fuel efficiency of new cars, pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and minivans. A proposal by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, would require 36 mpg by 2016. Another by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Ernest Hollings, R-S.C., has been included in the Democratic leadership's proposal and would mandate 35 mpg by 2013.

In order to achieve those savings, lots of fuel-miserly hybrids would have to be sold, and improvements would have to be made to trucks, SUVs and minivans that have gotten a break from fuel-economy rules.

With current technology, said the Union of Concerned Scientists' Friedman, "You can put together a fleet that averages 40 mpg that includes SUVs that get 40 mpg, pickup trucks that get almost 34 mpg, minivans that get about 41 mpg and things like family-sized cars that get close to 46 and Cavalier-Civic-type cars that get about 48. We are not talking about a fleet of small vehicles."

Opponents disagree. They charge that the 35-36 mpg figure being pushed by some senators would mean a life without SUVs.

The public's hankering for Expeditions, Suburbans, Land Rovers and Jeeps was a big reason the PNGV program aimed at producing a sedan didn't pan out, Abraham and other defenders of the auto industry say.

"It certainly had a desirable goal -- an 80 mile-per-gallon vehicle -- but it wasn't at all clear this vehicle would appeal to consumer tastes," Abraham said.

But it's a mistake to say the PNGV program did not produce improvements in mileage, Culver said.

For instance, the research program produced a lightweight composite of fiberglass and plastic that can be used as a pickup truck bed, saving 50 pounds and improving gas mileage, he said. It's offered now as an option on the Chevy Silverado.

Incorporating all the innovations discovered in the PNGV program isn't practical, though, Culver said.

"In Europe or Japan, where gas is $4 or $5 a gallon, these technologies make a lot more sense," Culver said. "You can make a business case for them."

The new technologies are being used selectively in cars the Big Three are bringing out, Culver said. Hybrid vehicles will be saving Americans a lot of gas consumption in coming years, even if they aren't mandated by the government, he said. "I see hybrids as an interim solution," Culver said.

The debate in the Senate, expected to go into next week, follows passage last fall of a House energy bill with no tightening of fuel-efficiency standards, tax breaks for fossil-fuel producers and permission for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, say they are in favor of improving fuel efficiency. Cantwell favors the Kerry-Hollings bill, and Murray is leaning in favor of it, spokesmen said.

If the Senate can agree on a bill, negotiators from that chamber would have to meet in a conference committee with House members to work out a compromise bill.

If the final product of those negotiations looks much like the House bill, "We'd rather have no bill at all," said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation.


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