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U.S., Auto Firms Plan 'Clean Car' : Economy: President to announce effort by Big Three, weapons labs to build 80-m.p.g. vehicles within a decade. It's seen as key test of Clinton's industrial policy.

September 29, 1993|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — In a step being compared to the Apollo project that put a man on the moon, President Clinton will announce today a partnership between the Big Three auto makers 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 Clinton's industrial policy, which espouses federal backing for the development of commercially useful technologies.

Details of the agreement were sketchy Tuesday, but it is likely to involve more than $1 billion in research funds contributed by the government and General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., sources said. The government money will be shifted from ongoing 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 miles per gallon fuel-economy standard on auto makers' 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 Hirsch.

U.S. auto makers 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 m.p.g.

Auto makers' fleet mileage has been about the same since 1987. Automobiles achieved an average of about 14 m.p.g. in the 1970s before the government imposed fuel-economy requirements.

Clean car talks between the government and Detroit's auto makers--Chrysler, Ford and General Motors--began seven months ago, after Clinton expressed support for government-industry partnerships to protect jobs, expand the economy, reduce dependence on foreign oil and ensure 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 Gore, who called for elimination of internal-combustion engine vehicles in his book "Earth in the Balance," and Clinton, who has courted environmentalists with promises to increase fuel-economy standards to 40-45 m.p.g.

"Everybody wanted to make sure this was prudent," said one industry source in Washington. "Industry did not want to be put into a technology straitjacket. The government didn't want to promise too much."

A draft of the agreement outlines three areas for research:

* Advanced manufacturing techniques that make it easier to get products to market quicker. This would include computer-based design and testing systems, and automation and control systems that can lower production costs.

* Technologies that can quickly improve car efficiency, safety and emissions. For example, use of lightweight, recyclable materials or better catalysts for reducing vehicle exhaust.

* Clean car development using fuel cells or advanced energy storage systems. The focus will be on building affordable vehicles that meet safety standards, and perform as well and are as comfortable as gas-powered cars.

The auto makers will work on different vehicles to try to improve the fuel efficiency of each threefold. The goal with a car with average fuel efficiency of 27.5 m.p.g. would be 82.5 m.p.g.; for a pickup truck with fuel efficiency of 18 m.p.g., it would be 54 m.p.g.

The Administration emphasized that the clean car initiative is not a government project. The program is designed to allow the industry to set objectives and define areas where government help could be most useful.

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