Scientists Urge Accelerated Pace to Greater Auto Fuel Efficiency

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With gas prices rising and global warming worsening, a group of scientists released a report Wednesday urging the auto industry to dramatically speed up development of more fuel-efficient automobiles.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a report issued in conjunction with the Center for Auto Safety, said improving technology could save consumers nearly $9.8 billion a year through reduced fuel consumption and raise efficiency to an average of 40 miles per gallon for cars and trucks. The average fuel economy among new cars this year is 24.5 mpg, tying 1999 for the lowest mark since 1980, according to government figures.

Using existing technology, the groups said, auto makers could meet the 40 mpg goal by 2012, increasing to 55 mpg by 2020.

In addition, vehicles that use "hybrid technology" could provide a major boon to fuel efficiency, the groups said.

Performance Cited

"These are vehicles that would have the same acceleration, same general performance and same cargo space as cars and trucks we have today," said David Friedman, senior transportation analyst for the scientists' group.

Hybrid technology combines a traditional gasoline engine with an electric motor, offering fuel efficiency up to three times that of gasoline-only vehicles. Because hybrid engines burn less fuel and generate fewer emissions, they generally run cleaner. When the driver stops in traffic, the engine shuts down, restarting when the driver moves to accelerate again--a feature that reduces pollution from idling.

Consumers waste large amounts of gas "just sitting in traffic," said Jason Mark, director of the union's clean vehicle program. "The technology is very much ready to go and ready for prime time."

As part of his wide-ranging energy policy unveiled last month, President Bush proposed providing $4 billion in tax credits for purchases of hybrid electric-gasoline vehicles or cars powered by fuel cells.

But the major American car makers are at least two years away from offering the hybrid vehicles. This year, only about 16,000 of the vehicles will be available in the United States--sold by Honda and Toyota.

Daniel Becker, director of the global warming and energy program for the Sierra Club, said his organization has been working with the Union of Concerned Scientists to encourage quicker development of hybrid technology.

But Steve Douglas, director of environmental affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers' Sacramento office, said that, although hybrid technology is ideal for helping fuel costs and the environment, production would be costly for many manufacturers.

"Not only do you have to design the vehicles from the ground up, but the electric batteries are costly," he said. Moreover, cars with the new technology would cost an additional $2,000 to $4,000, analysts said.

Douglas noted that U.S. car makers are already moving toward the new technology. "I don't think forcing any type of technology, whether it's hybrid or electric vehicles, is appropriate." "Manufacturers are interested in this and are pursuing it."

Brendan Prebo, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co., said Ford is developing a hybrid version of its Explorer and Escape sport-utility vehicles that will be available to consumers in 2003.

Bigger Cars Preferred

However, consumers often prefer bigger, less-efficient cars to the more fuel-efficient models now on the market, according to industry figures.

Noting that preference, Douglas, of the automobile manufacturers' alliance, said: "It's not the case of 'If you build it, they will come.' We built it, but they haven't come."

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