WASHINGTON, D.C.--An ambitious program to create superefficient automobiles by the year 2000 will not reach a major milestone, predicts a new report from the National Research Council (NRC). The peer-reviewed analysis of the flagship industrial development program begun in 1993 by the Clinton Administration argues that it is premature to promote any specific clean-car technology at this time; instead, it recommends more R&D.
The program, known as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), began with a bang at a White House Rose Garden press conference in September 1993. President Clinton announced that he had forged a pact with leaders of the U.S. car companies to create automobiles within a decade that would both meet clean air standards and get 80 miles to the gallon (or 34 km/l). (U.S. cars now average 20 to 30 miles per gallon.) Since then, the government and industry have been spending roughly $600 million a year to develop futuristic autos, according to the Commerce Department. This year, the program was supposed to choose technological "winners" that would be rushed into prototypes by 2000.
But the NRC review, chaired by Trevor Jones of the Echlin company of Cleveland, says it is unrealistic to adhere to PNGV's schedule. While PNGV has developed many new high-tech auto components, the report says, researchers haven't been able to offer complete car designs that could compete in today's market. It "no longer appears to be tenable," says the NRC report, to try to pick a winner in 1997. And if PNGV were to do so, the report says, "nonconventional technologies run the risk of being discontinued or discarded."
At present, the NRC panel says, none of the proposed new designs "will come close to meeting the cost objectives" within initial deadlines. And the one innovation with the "highest potential" for meeting the original goals is not so radical: It's an advanced diesel engine. While light-weight diesels might satisfy the PNGV's cost and efficiency requirements, the report notes, they might not meet new limits on airborne particles being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency. (Diesels emit more particles than do gasoline engines.)
The report does praise the partnership for developing many innovations, such as automobile fuel cells that can run on more than one type of fuel, high-power lithium batteries, and lightweight composite materials that do not shatter on impact.
The Commerce Department, which oversees the government half of PNGV, agreed with the NRC report that "some technologies are not progressing at a pace consistent with the established program timetable." But Commerce spokesperson Virginia Miller emphasized the positive--saying that PNGV has pushed industry to move faster. As evidence, she cites Chrysler's announcement last January that it will develop a prototype high-efficiency car powered by a fuel cell within 2 years, and Ford's 17 March announcement that it plans to build high-efficiency diesel-electric prototype cars later this year. These prototypes, however, were not selected as part of the PNGV program.