80-mpg cars may be down the road Goal is to triple fuel efficiency

September 29, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

DETROIT -- In a step being compared to the Apollo project that put a man on the moon, President Clinton was to announce today a partnership between the Big Three automakers and the nation's defense laboratories to develop, within a decade, vehicles three times more fuel efficient than today's cars.

The so-called "clean car" alliance, among the most wide-ranging collaborations ever between U.S. government and industry, is a major test of Mr. Clinton's industrial policy, which espouses federal backing for the development of commercially useful technologies.

Details of the agreement were sketchy yesterday, but it is likely to involve more than $1 billion in research funds contributed by the government and General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, sources said. The government money will be shifted from current auto research projects in various agencies.

The program's most ambitious goal is development within a decade of practical, affordable vehicles that can get as much as 80 miles per gallon, triple current average fuel-economy levels.

In a draft of the agreement, the White House described the goal as "a technological challenge comparable to or greater than that involved in the Apollo project." The administration said success would require radical changes in the way autos operate, and the outcome is risky and uncertain.

Environmental groups, while praising the basic agreement, worried that the ambitious program was open-ended, with no firm deadline or requirement that a vehicle even be produced.

"I am concerned that the agreement doesn't have any specific production goals," said Nancy Hirsch, director of the Energy Conservation Coalition in Washington.

There was speculation that the agreement included a provision that the government would not seek increases in the current 27.5 mpg fuel-economy standard on automakers' fleets. But environmentalists briefed on the project said the administration assured them that this was not the case.

"They have not given that away," said Ms. Hirsh.

U.S. automakers have made little progress in fuel economy since the mid-1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency's annual measures suggest.

Although the EPA provided no overall average this year, agency officials have said the average mileage number is believed to be close to last year's average of 28.1 miles per gallon.

Automakers' fleet mileage has been about the same since 1987. Automobiles achieved on average of about 14 mpg in the 1970s before the government imposed fuel economy requirements.

Clean-car talks between the government and Detroit's automakers -- Chrysler, Ford and General Motors -- began seven months ago, after Mr. Clinton expressed support for government-industry partnerships to protect jobs, expand the economy, reduce dependence on foreign oil and insure U.S. global competitiveness.

The administration then said it wanted to fund research into development of control systems for hybrid vehicles, advanced batteries for electric vehicles and alternative fuels, including methanol and hydrogen. Hybrid vehicles use both electric and internal combustion engines.

The negotiations -- involving top auto executives, Vice President Al Gore and White House Science Adviser John Gibbons -- were described as complex and difficult, imbued with a long history of antagonism between the industry and government regulators.

There was a great deal of distrust of Mr. Gore, who called for elimination of internal-combustion engine vehicles in his book "Earth in the Balance," and Mr. Clinton, who has courted environmentalists with promises to increase fuel-economy standards to 40-45 mpg.

BEST AND WORST

Cars with the best and worst fuel efficiency for the 1994 model year, according to the Environmental Protection agency:

Best

Geo Metro XFI, 55 (58 highway, 53 city).

Honda Civic HB VX, 51 (56 highway, 47 city).

Suzuki Swift, 48 (50 highway, 46 city).

Geo Metro, 48 (49 highway, 46 city).

Honda Civic HB VX 47 (51 highway, 44 city).

Note: Two Honda Civic HB models identical except one with higher mileage is equipped with shift indicator light.

Worst

Rolls Royce Silver Spur III, 13 (14 highway, 10 city).

Rolls Royce, 13 (15 highway, 10 city).

(Silver Spirit, Corniche IV, Continental, Bentley models)

Ferrari 512 TR, 13 (16 highway, 11 city).

Jaguar XJ12, 13 (16 highway, 12 city).

Jaguar XJS Coup, 13 (16 highway, 12 city).

Note: Excludes trucks, vans and specialty vehicles.

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