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THE BUSH PLAN FOR CLEAN AIR : Cite Problems With Speeded-Up Production of Alternative-Fuel Vehicles : Car Firms Resist Rushing Into New Technology

June 13, 1989|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — Alternative-fuel vehicles--cars powered by something other than smog-producing gasoline--may not be ready for production in large numbers until after 1995, auto industry executives say.

As a result, the major auto companies are expected to lobby Congress to modify the Bush Administration's clean air proposal, announced Monday, so that it does not require mass production of alternative-fuel cars in the near future.

The Administration, as part of its clean air package, called for the sale of 500,000 cars capable of burning alternative fuels in the nation's nine smoggiest cities in 1995 and 1 million in 1997.

Methanol Highly Corrosive

That would require some major changes in vehicle design in a hurry. Methanol, the chief gasoline substitute, corrodes rubber, plastic and steel; systems in methanol-burning cars that come in contact with the fuel will have to be built of corrosion-resistant stainless steel.

The new generation of automobile will also have to be equipped with oversized fuel tanks, because cars need nearly two gallons of methanol to go as far as they can on a gallon of gasoline.

General Motors Corp., the nation's largest auto maker, warns that a large-scale shift away from gasoline could take until 1997 or 1998.

And, although Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. say it is possible that large-scale production could be achieved by 1995, they stressed the need for flexibility so that the necessary research and field testing for the conversion can be done at a reasonable pace.

"We always find things we don't foresee, which is why we like to do testing," said Sam Leonard, director of automotive emission controls for GM's environmental activities staff. "We want to do it right."

Leonard and other executives argue that, if the auto industry is forced to rush large numbers of alternative-fuel vehicles to the road before they are ready, quality problems could damage consumer acceptance of the vehicles, just as defects devastated sales of diesel engines in the early 1980s.

"We think there are enough unanswered questions now that we believe it would be premature to mandate their production," Leonard said.

"The auto industry does not approve of mandates," added Jim Steiger, director of fuels, lubricants and special projects for the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Assn., the auto industry's main trade group. "You can't jam something down somebody's throat without adequate testing."

That was the message that GM Chairman Roger Smith delivered to President Bush in a White House meeting last Thursday, when Bush met with representatives from several industries concerned with the contents of his clean air package.

Smith cautioned Bush that he should offer a clean air package only on an "economically sound basis." From GM's perspective, that means one that does not require production of alternative-fuel vehicles in the next few years.

Other auto makers feel the same.

"We have a product that may be able to work, if all the technical questions are worked out," said David Kulp, manager of fuel economy planning and compliance at Ford. "But we need a couple of years of field testing before we determine what our next step should be, before we decide to go into full production."

"It's still hard to say exactly how soon we could produce them, but it would be in the mid-1990s at least," added Gordon Allardyce, executive engineer for certification and regulatory programs at Chrysler. He said that, if the government firmly mandates an early production date, "then you are forcing the market, and we would have to reevaluate our priorities to see if we could meet the deadline."

Many of the major Japanese auto makers also oppose the imposition of a strict production timetable. "It would be premature to mandate the use of (alternative) fuels in production vehicles," Honda said in a statement submitted last week to the House Energy subcommittee on health and the environment, which is studying amendments to the Clean Air Act.

"There is still a lot of work to be done," added Joe Tetherow, a spokesman for Toyota. "And, right now, the burden seems to be on the auto industry. We don't see a similar effort being required of the energy industry."

Although many Japanese auto makers are conducting research on alternative-fuel vehicles in Japan, few of them have done field testing in this country.

Both Ford and GM are working with the California Energy Commission on a plan to build and test about 5,000 so-called variable-fuel cars, which can run on gasoline, alcohol fuels or a mixture of both. Some of these cars are already on the road in the state.

GM and Ford expect to produce their entire test fleets for California by 1992 or 1993, and the firms say that they would like to see the results of the testing before committing themselves to mass production.

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