WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is canceling a 2004 deadline for automakers to develop prototype cars that would get up to 80 miles per gallon and could be put into production a few years later.
Department of Energy spokesman Joe Davis said that the 2004 deadline for producing a prototype, five-person "supercar" was dead.
The department is switching its focus from efficient family sedans to "longer-term technologies" that could be used in all kinds of vehicles, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told Congress last week.
Critics say keeping the 80-m.p.g. goal is important as gas prices soar.
"We were on the way to a supercar, and now we're putting that kind of progress at risk at a potentially unfortunate moment when consumers are facing rising gas prices," Dan Reicher, assistant secretary for energy efficiency during the Clinton administration, said.
The federal government has spent $1.4 billion on the program, with more than 99 percent of that used for research in federal energy labs. Some environmental and taxpayer watchdog groups have called the program "corporate welfare," saying the government was funding research that otherwise would be paid for by the automakers.
Energy Department officials intend to kill or delay work on shorter-term research, including efforts to reduce vehicle weight, said Bob Culver, a Ford Motor Co. executive who is the executive director the United States Council for Automotive Research, the automaker consortium that oversees the program.
"It's going to be painful," Culver said. "But I have no doubt we'll come out with a very strong program."
Culver said the 80-m.p.g. goal for a prototype "is somewhat moot" because, while the program had met its milestones so far, it was proving especially tough to meet the final one: getting the cost down to be competitive with that of conventional cars.
"It would have been very, very difficult for us to put an 80-m.p.g. vehicle in the showroom at a comparable price to a conventional internal combustion vehicle you see in the showroom today," said Art Koby, who oversees business issues in General Motors Corp.'s contribution to the supercar consortium.
But Culver said it was a mistake to eliminate the short-term research, especially on developing lighter materials to help improve fuel efficiency.
An independent review last year by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the program to develop highly fuel-efficient cars was making progress.
Abraham, however, said the supercar program focused too much on one type of vehicle. When Vice President Al Gore championed the program in 1993, it was aimed at midsize sedans, but since then, bigger sport-utility vehicles have grown in popularity. New research should be broader throughout America's vehicle fleet, Abraham said.
That is already happening. GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG all have announced that in the 2004 model year, they would be using some supercar technology to build pickup trucks and SUVs that get better mileage.
Ford's small Escape will nearly double mileage to 40 m.p.g., a potential savings of 300 gallons of gas a year, Culver said. Mileage in GM's full-size Silverado and Sierra in 2004 will be improved by 15 percent. And DaimlerChrysler's midsize Dodge Durango SUV in 2003 will have a 20 percent improvement in gas mileage, DaimlerChrysler program manager Stephen Zimmer said.
Environmental groups have attacked the program, saying it promoted the use of dirtier diesel fuel and gave automakers political cover for abandoning efforts to improve overall fleet fuel efficiency. They advocate increasing that fleet-efficiency standard.
Bush officials will not decide what to do about the fleet fuel-efficiency standards until a National Academy of Sciences report comes out this summer, Vice President Cheney said Tuesday.
Individual auto companies will not say how much they spend on fuel efficiency. But Culver said the three companies together spent about $1 billion a year on overall fuel-efficiency research and development.
Copyright 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc