- 1/17/2002 -
U.S. science panel says Detroit can improve fuel use

Thursday, January 17, 2002

By Julie Vorman, Reuters

WASHINGTON - A National Academy of Sciences panel on Wednesday 
rebutted criticisms from automakers and reaffirmed a finding made in 
July that new technologies could be tapped to improve the fuel 
consumption of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and minivans over 
a 15-year period.

Stricter mileage standards have been endorsed by many Democrats and 
environmental groups as a key plank in a national energy policy that 
could save millions of barrels of petroleum.

Detroit automakers contend that improving the fuel consumption of 
sport utility vehicles means building lighter vehicles that are less 
safe for passengers. The Bush administration has had little to say 
about the government imposing stricter fuel standards but has 
endorsed an energy policy that promotes drilling for oil in places 
like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The independent science panel, which advises the U.S. government on 
complex issues, issued a new report Wednesday after automakers 
complained that its July report overestimated the industry's ability 
to improve fuel efficiency.

The July draft report concluded U.S. automakers could increase the 
fuel efficiency of sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, minivans, 
and cars by 16 percent to 47 percent over the next 10 to 15 years. It 
stopped short of calling for specific government-mandated increases 
but said Detroit should use technology to raise fuel efficiency and 
cut emissions of greenhouse gases.


On Wednesday the National Academy of Sciences panel said its findings 
and recommendations presented in the July report were "essentially 

"The committee reaffirms its approach and general results: 
Significant gains in fuel economy are possible with the application 
of new technology at corresponding increases in vehicle price,'' it 

However, the scientists said they did find some "minor computational 
or data entry errors" in the earlier report and that the data would 
be changed before a final report is published later this year.

The science panel's report examined a wide range of mechanical 
changes and new technology. For example, SUV fuel consumption could 
be improved by up to 4 percent if vehicle weight was cut 5 percent, a 
change that could add as much as $350 to the retail cost, the panel 

An SUV could also cut fuel use by up to 7 percent with an integrated 
starter/generator costing about $350, and by up to 10 percent with an 
engine equipped with camless valve actuation that would boost the 
price by about $560, the report said.


The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it was concerned that 
some of the estimated fuel gains do not reflect the uncertainty and 
complex business of making vehicles or the trade-offs involved in 
manufacturing. "What makes a sports car more efficient may not work 
on a minivan," said Gloria Berquist, spokeswoman for the group. 
''Even if the technology could have benefits, that doesn't mean a 
consumer will buy it and that it will get on the road.''

U.S. automakers say some 50 vehicles that get more than 35 miles per 
gallon are already on the market but they account for less than 1 
percent of all sales.

The science panel addressed the so-called Corporate Average Fuel 
Economy (CAFE) standards adopted by Congress in 1975 after the Arab 
oil embargo. They require passenger cars to get an average 27.5 miles 
per gallon and light trucks 20.7 mpg. When the CAFE standards were 
written, light trucks were allowed to get lower mileage because they 
were used mostly by farmers and small businesses. Today, sport 
utility vehicles and other light trucks account for half of U.S. 
vehicle sales.

Any government-mandated boost for sport utility vehicles and minivans 
won't occur before the 2005 model year. Last month, the head of the 
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told Congress that 
there was little time left for the government to order fuel changes 
to model year 2004 vehicles that are scheduled to become available in 
late 2003.

The 13-member National Academy of Sciences panel was led by Paul 
Portney of Resources for the Future. Other members included John 
Wise, a former Mobil Oil employee; Philip Sharp of Harvard 
University; David Green of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Adrian 
Lund of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Copyright 2002, Reuters

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