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NEWS ANALYSIS : All Roads Do Not Necessarily Lead to the 'Car of the Future'


President Clinton's initiative to triple the fuel efficiency of American-made autos might aptly be compared to the Manhattan Project.

Like that wartime effort, the plan to develop a high-mileage car, announced by Clinton on Wednesday in conjunction with General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., would enlist the brightest technical minds in government and the industry, and could result in technological breakthroughs.

But, like the Manhattan Project, it is also sure to be costly, may divert resources from other investments--and could ultimately yield a bomb.

That's because achieving high-fuel efficiency, while technically feasible and environmentally desirable, could mean a big trade-off in safety, comfort and price for the consumer. And it may not result in a commercially viable product.

"One of the biggest problems is not whether they could develop the car, but whether anyone would buy it," said Thomas O'Grady, an industry analyst and president of the consulting firm Integrated Automotive Resources Inc. in Newark, Del.

That seems especially true as long as gasoline is cheaper than bottled water, and given trends toward bigger, higher-powered cars and trucks.

Still, developing a car that would use one-third the fuel of current autos is the centerpiece of the project unveiled Wednesday.

"Today we're going to try to give America a new car-crazy chapter in her rich history," the President said, alluding to the nation's love affair with the automobile.

A White House fact sheet called the project a model for the new partnership between government and industry that Clinton promised in his campaign. "Philosophically, it is a sea change in Washington to have a government that believes it should work together with industry," said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Under the program, each of the auto makers would commit to tripling the mileage of a single model within a decade.

The project would also adapt defense technology to make auto design and manufacturing more competitive, and apply the best current technology to allow gasoline-powered cars to meet government standards.

The project won praise for representing a new level of cooperation between government and industry. "It certainly will mean that industry and government will be more efficient in their use of resources as far as new technology development," said David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

But he added, "Just because you can make one or a few (of these cars) doesn't mean that the conversion into a commercial reality is a short-term or easy task."

This isn't the first time attention has turned to high-efficiency vehicles. "The auto companies have garages full of these cars," said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

Not only GM and Ford, but also Renault, Volvo, Honda and most other large manufacturers have experimented with the concept, as have independent inventors and engineering students.

The results? Some vehicles have achieved more than 100 m.p.g. But they have all been too light, too small or too weird for commercial development.

A study last year by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council asked what fuel-efficiency goals were technically feasible without government help, given current technology.

Among its conclusions: At best, an auto maker could improve the efficiency of a subcompact car from 31.4 m.p.g. to between 39 and 44 m.p.g. by the 2006 model year at an additional cost per vehicle of $500 to $2,500, assuming that safety, emissions, performance and comfort levels remained the same.

Beyond that? "A number of emerging technologies hold the promise of better fuel economy. . . . However, in part because of stringent new and proposed emissions standards . . . it is impossible at this stage to estimate with any accuracy the probability of their success," the study said.

Research into high-mileage vehicles has centered on reducing vehicle weight, improving engine efficiency and combining gasoline with less traditional power sources such as solar energy and electricity.

With each comes a trade-off: Lighter weight can mean less structural integrity, fewer safety features or less passenger room. Greater engine efficiency can mean lower performance or higher emissions. All can mean higher costs.

UC Davis students apparently hold the world mileage record at the moment, with a vehicle that gets 3,000 miles to the gallon.

But the one-person car, built for the annual Society of Automotive Engineers Super Mileage Competition, illustrates in the extreme why these cars aren't yet on the road.

It is 2 1/2 feet tall, uses bicycle tires and is steered by a driver lying on his back. "It's not real comfortable, it's not real safe, and I wouldn't take it on a freeway," Sperling said.

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