WASHINGTON -- At first glance, the row of Chevy Suburbans parked near the U.S. Capitol recently looked like race-car wannabes, brightly colored and plastered with sponsor decals.
But the vehicles had been modified by clever student engineers from 15 colleges for a competition of a different sort, an effort to design a fuel-efficient, low-polluting "green" sport utility vehicle that would still win the hearts of consumers.
The teams in the FutureTruck 2001 contest, including the overall winner from the University of California, Davis, used hybrid electric design, an approach already being used for the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, commercially available passenger cars.
A team from the University of Wisconsin at Madison took first place for best on-road fuel efficiency, squeezing the equivalent of 28 miles per gallon of gasoline out of their diesel-electric hybrid. That is about 60 percent better than the standard Suburban's 15 mpg average.
According to organizers of the FutureTruck competition and other specialists, the technology is at hand to give gas-guzzling SUVs, vans and light trucks -- which account for nearly half of U.S. sales -- better mileage and cleaner emissions.
Consumers who want to drive fuel-efficient vehicles will not have to abandon their SUVs in favor of compact sedans, they said. But there is a vigorous political debate on whether Uncle Sam should do more to prod automakers to improve the mileage of SUVs, which currently are subject to less stringent fuel economy standards than passenger cars.
It is a debate Congress has had just about every year since President Ford signed a law in 1975 mandating "corporate average fuel economy," or CAFE, standards, for new cars. The current standards require each automaker to produce a fleet of passenger cars with an average fuel economy of 27.5 miles per gallon. But the standard for light trucks, minivans and SUVs is only 20.7 miles per gallon.
With consumers upset at high gas prices and critics arguing that President Bush's energy plan puts too much emphasis on production (even as the president touted conservation during a visit last week to the Energy Department), proponents of tougher fuel economy standards are pressing their case.
"Fuel economy standards have not kept pace with technology improvements," said Michelle Robinson, a senior policy adviser for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
For the first time in years, there may be legislative movement on the fuel economy front. Some Republicans in Congress have said they are open to reasonable increases in the standards and back bills that would require SUVs to meet the higher fuel economy standard for cars.
Recently, the House passed a transportation funding bill that -- for the first time since the Republicans took over the House in 1995 -- does not prohibit government regulators from raising the miles per gallon standard for SUVs.
The Bush administration is reviewing fuel economy standards, including those for light trucks and SUVs. It is awaiting a National Academy of Sciences report, expected by the end of this month, on the effectiveness of the existing CAFE standards.
Still, the prospects for closing the so-called SUV loophole remain unclear. The auto industry continues to oppose any change in fuel economy standards, whether through regulatory action or legislative mandate.
Instead, industry officials back voluntary technology improvements and use of federal tax incentives to encourage consumers to buy advanced, fuel-efficient vehicles such as electric hybrids.
Ford has announced plans to make a hybrid electric version of its Escape SUV for the 2003 model year that could get up to 40 miles per gallon. GM says it will build a hybrid version of a full-sized pickup truck by 2004. DaimlerChrysler says it will offer a hybrid version of its Dodge Durango for 2003.
Critics say the industry can do more. The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, in a recent report, said the nation's combined fleet of passenger cars, light trucks and sports utility vehicles could average 40 miles per gallon by 2012 using such techniques as weight-saving aluminum body parts, variable valve engines, tires with lower rolling resistance and improved transmissions.
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