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NEWS ANALYSIS : All Roads Do Not Necessarily Lead to the ‘Car of the Future’

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Clinton’s initiative to triple the fuel efficiency of American-made autos might aptly be compared to the Manhattan Project.

Like that wartime effort, the plan to develop a high-mileage car, announced by Clinton on Wednesday in conjunction with General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., would enlist the brightest technical minds in government and the industry, and could result in technological breakthroughs.

But, like the Manhattan Project, it is also sure to be costly, may divert resources from other investments--and could ultimately yield a bomb.

That’s because achieving high-fuel efficiency, while technically feasible and environmentally desirable, could mean a big trade-off in safety, comfort and price for the consumer. And it may not result in a commercially viable product.

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“One of the biggest problems is not whether they could develop the car, but whether anyone would buy it,” said Thomas O’Grady, an industry analyst and president of the consulting firm Integrated Automotive Resources Inc. in Newark, Del.

That seems especially true as long as gasoline is cheaper than bottled water, and given trends toward bigger, higher-powered cars and trucks.

Still, developing a car that would use one-third the fuel of current autos is the centerpiece of the project unveiled Wednesday.

“Today we’re going to try to give America a new car-crazy chapter in her rich history,” the President said, alluding to the nation’s love affair with the automobile.

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A White House fact sheet called the project a model for the new partnership between government and industry that Clinton promised in his campaign. “Philosophically, it is a sea change in Washington to have a government that believes it should work together with industry,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Under the program, each of the auto makers would commit to tripling the mileage of a single model within a decade.

The project would also adapt defense technology to make auto design and manufacturing more competitive, and apply the best current technology to allow gasoline-powered cars to meet government standards.

The project won praise for representing a new level of cooperation between government and industry. “It certainly will mean that industry and government will be more efficient in their use of resources as far as new technology development,” said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

But he added, “Just because you can make one or a few (of these cars) doesn’t mean that the conversion into a commercial reality is a short-term or easy task.”

This isn’t the first time attention has turned to high-efficiency vehicles. “The auto companies have garages full of these cars,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

Not only GM and Ford, but also Renault, Volvo, Honda and most other large manufacturers have experimented with the concept, as have independent inventors and engineering students.

The results? Some vehicles have achieved more than 100 m.p.g. But they have all been too light, too small or too weird for commercial development.

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A study last year by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council asked what fuel-efficiency goals were technically feasible without government help, given current technology.

Among its conclusions: At best, an auto maker could improve the efficiency of a subcompact car from 31.4 m.p.g. to between 39 and 44 m.p.g. by the 2006 model year at an additional cost per vehicle of $500 to $2,500, assuming that safety, emissions, performance and comfort levels remained the same.

Beyond that? “A number of emerging technologies hold the promise of better fuel economy. . . . However, in part because of stringent new and proposed emissions standards . . . it is impossible at this stage to estimate with any accuracy the probability of their success,” the study said.

Research into high-mileage vehicles has centered on reducing vehicle weight, improving engine efficiency and combining gasoline with less traditional power sources such as solar energy and electricity.

With each comes a trade-off: Lighter weight can mean less structural integrity, fewer safety features or less passenger room. Greater engine efficiency can mean lower performance or higher emissions. All can mean higher costs.

UC Davis students apparently hold the world mileage record at the moment, with a vehicle that gets 3,000 miles to the gallon.

But the one-person car, built for the annual Society of Automotive Engineers Super Mileage Competition, illustrates in the extreme why these cars aren’t yet on the road.

It is 2 1/2 feet tall, uses bicycle tires and is steered by a driver lying on his back. “It’s not real comfortable, it’s not real safe, and I wouldn’t take it on a freeway,” Sperling said.

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The Clinton Administration’s goal of reaching about 80 m.p.g. would not require such impractical solutions. Yet even conventional prototypes have held little commercial promise.

The biggest drawback has been high cost, mostly because of the advanced, composite materials used. Though costs are coming down, these space-age materials cost up to 100 times as much as steel, Sperling said.

GM’s Ultralite, introduced at auto shows in 1991, makes use of such lightweight body panels, reportedly achieving about 100 m.p.g.

But the material in the body panels alone costs about $13,000, many times the cost of comparable steel, aluminum or fiberglass parts.

Moreover, no technology exists to mass-produce the low-weight, high-strength carbon-fiber composite body panels that were hand-shaped for the prototype.

“We’ll sell you one tomorrow, but I need about 6.5 million bucks,” joked Jerry Bishop, a spokesman at GM’s Technical Center in Warren, Mich.

Still, carbon fiber and other new materials offer the prospect of much cheaper manufacturing, if car makers can rethink their assembly lines from the ground up.

Energy-conservation expert Amory Lovins has advocated production techniques that would allow such cars to be built for niche markets in smaller batches with far fewer parts.

The main frame and chassis of a conventional car requires 400 steel parts. Composite materials, which can be more easily formed, might require only six.

Under the Clinton initiative, the missing technology to build such cars will be largely supplied by the Department of Energy’s national laboratories. More than 50 auto-related projects are already under way at various labs, from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Northern California to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Ultimately, focusing on fuel efficiency may be too narrow, said Phillip Myers, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. “The real question that needs to be addressed is: What can we do to decrease transportation fuel consumption? Fuel economy is only a part of that question.”


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