Cleaner Cars

May 3, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Cars are often the targets of antipollution crusades, and traditionally, car makers and the Environmental Protection Agency are on opposite sides of the fence. But in 1993, the Clinton administration brought Detroit’s three auto makers together with the federal government in the partnership for a new generation of vehicles known as PNGV

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (September 29, 1993) Our long-term goal is to develop affordable, attractive cars that are up to three times more fuel efficient than today’s cars — three times.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The goal of PNGV Was to build a clean-burning, 80-mile- per-gallon car in ten years. Carmakers have long tried to use batteries to boost fuel efficiency. This 1914 electric Sedan was owned by Henry Ford’s wife, Clara. The big challenge has been making an economical battery that can run a car as long as a tank of gasoline and be quickly recharged. Detroit’s only recent foray, the battery-powered G.M. E.V. One, was recently suspended after failing to generate much consumer interest.

SPOKESMAN: This might not be that far off.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: So the PNGV Auto makers pursued a hybrid, combining a battery with a conventional engine. The hybrids use an electronic system to switch between the two sources for the best performance and efficiency, and use the engine to recharge the battery.

BILL POWERS, Vice President, Ford Motor Company: What you see here is basically a modern small diesel engine, which would be the internal combustion part of our process.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ford vice president Bill Powers said his company’s concept or experimental car, called the Prodigy, has numerous other modifications– cameras instead of rear-view mirrors to lessen wind resistance, and aluminum instead of steel, all of which could bring an eventual production model close to the 80-mile-per-gallon target.

BILL POWERS: We wanted the package of a Taurus, which we consider to be a mid-size family sedan. Yet this is almost 1,000 pounds lighter.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The PNGV companies and their experimental cars– Ford with its Prodigy, GM the Precept, and Daimler-Chrysler with the ESX 2, came to Washington late last March for a progress report. Although production cars are still some years off, Daimler- Chrysler’s Jim Holden was upbeat.

JIM HOLDEN, President, Daimler/Chrysler: We can eventually create new vehicles with the size and the features our customers want, and the remarkable fuel economy that we’ve put on display here, and with your support, we’re working very hard to do just exactly that.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: However, none of the three carmakers in the partnership will be first to bring a hybrid car to the market. That distinction goes to Japan’s Honda.

ANNOUNCER: Introducing America’s first gasoline-electric hybrid, the Insight, from Honda.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Insight made its American debut late last year. A two-seater powered by a small gasoline engine and battery system that achieves about 70 miles-per-gallon. And this fall, Toyota will be first to offer a five-passenger hybrid. The company has already sold about 30,000 Prius models in Japan. Toyota’s John McCandless showed us a Japanese street version of the gasoline electric sedan, which he said should get about 50 miles-per-gallon.

JOHN McCANDLESS, Toyota: And as I pull away from the light here, I pull away on electric power. As I put my foot down, and I accelerate, the internal combustion engine starts. It has regenerative braking so when I stop here, or slow down for a light, the power generated by the brakes goes back into the batteries.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Environmental groups have praised the Japanese carmakers for what they call a practical approach to cleaner cars, using intermediate technology instead of waiting for the iffier “pie in the sky” breakthroughs before bringing cars to market. The Sierra Club’s Dan Becker charges that Detroit is using the PNGV Project as an environmental fig leaf.

DAN BECKER, Sierra Club: Detroit has taken advantage of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles to create a scam. They produce one single, or two production prototypes, they sit on their fuel economy standards and refuse to make any progress. They churn out more and more gas guzzling SUV’s so that now we’re producing less efficient cars on average than we were in 1980.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Becker charged that Detroit is not seriously trying to sell cleaner cars. For example, he said all three PNGV models use diesel engines, which won’t meet the tight emission standards in California, a crucial bellwether market for new models, because it’s so large.

DAN BECKER: The Japanese chose cleaner gasoline hybrids. Diesel emissions are probable carcinogens, which is why California will not allow these PNGV vehicles to be sold in California.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ford’s Bill Powers is adamant that Detroit is deeply committed to the PNGV’S success. As for diesel engines, he says they get better mileage than gasoline or spark-ignition engines. Further down the road, he says a new fuel cell technology, with no harmful gases, could become viable. All, he says, are options for California.

BILL POWERS: We are doing very deep research, not just us, but with our partner… Other auto company partners as well as Sandia Los Alamos Federal Laboratories to make breakthroughs to help us clean up diesels. If we can’t sell diesels in California, we won’t sell diesels in California. We’ll have clean spark ignition engines to play that role.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But convincing buyers into the new hybrid cars may not be easy. Almost half the current total sales, at profits of $10,000 to $20,000 per-vehicle are in the large, thirsty, sport utility vehicles, or SUV’s, in spite of recent increases in gas prices. Csaba Csere, is editor of Car and Driver Magazine.

CSABA CSERE, Editor, Car & Driver Magazine: On opinion poll after opinion poll, Americans are very concerned about saving the environment. And you can phrase the question any way you want: They want to save fuel, they want to reduce oil imports, they care about the air, they care about the water purity. And then they go down to the dealership and they buy the giant jumbo SUV’s. So they say one thing and they act differently, and for the car companies who must actually sell the product, this is an enormous concern.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Critics of Detroit’s automakers say Americans simply haven’t had viable choices in alternative cleaner cars. So all eyes will be on the new Japanese hybrids as consumers kick the tires for the first time. At $20,000 when it comes on the market this fall, the Toyota Prius is about $4,000 more than a regular sedan, which will offset much of the savings in fuel. Toyota is counting on consumers like Ed Roth who will pay extra for a clean car.

ED ROTH: I’d have to consider what’s going to happen 20 years from now, and if this would make things better, you know, it would be a consideration.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: With increased sales and economies of scale, Toyota says it can bring prices down. However, the hybrids have a tall marketing order ahead of them, judging from this random poll at a recent auto show.

CONSUMER: There’s not a lot of technology explained at this point. I’d like to know more about that.

CONSUMER: There’s some question about the mechanical side of them. As far as what it costs to repair them.

CONSUMER: I think it’s a bit early yet. We’re still gasoline-minded.

CONSUMER: They’re too light to haul a boat.

CONSUMER: If they would come out with a hybrid SUV, I would buy it. Does that sound strange?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Apparently not to Ford. Early in April, Ford announced it would indeed offer a hybrid version of a smaller SUV called the Escape in 2003. It would be the first domestic automaker to actually deliver a car within the PNGV’s deadline, although its mileage will be about half the project’s goal at about 40 miles per gallon.