DETROIT - Cost, not weight or fuel economy, is now the biggest hurdle the Big 3 face in developing mid-sized sedans that get 80 mpg.
Three years ago, the Big 3 were not even sure they could create engines and cars that would achieve that mileage goal. But now the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles needs to shift its focus from advanced powertrains to manufacturing in order to cut costs, its directors say.
The Big 3 'could build hybrid cars today; the technology is there' to meet the mileage goal, said Peter Rosenfeld, Chrysler Corp.'s director for the partnership. 'But will people buy it if it costs tens of thousands more?'
Noted Ross Witschonke, Ford Motor Co.'s director for the partnership: 'We still don't know if we can do this. The key is creating an affordable customer product. That's still a challenging goal. It will require tremendous additional effort.'
The goal of the 10-year, government-industry program is to develop affordable mid-sized sedans that get 80 mpg at a price comparable to today's vehicles. The timetable calls for creation of concepts by 2000, and prototypes by 2004. The program is on schedule, partnership directors said.
When the effort began in 1993, the automakers said it might not work because they were not sure of advanced technologies such as hybrids and fuel cells.
Now, 'the biggest challenge is manufacturing technology,' said Ken Baker, vice president of research and development for General Motors. 'We're looking at an all-new form of transportation. When was the last time that happened?'
George Joy, the newly appointed chairman of the partnership task force for the U.S. Department of Commerce, said: 'We know how to get the weight out, but we need the manufacturing technologies to get the cost down.'
Partnership representatives from the Big 3 and the federal government gathered at the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Mich., last week to inspect the 12 entries in the FutureCar Challenge.
The event, sponsored by the Big 3 and the U.S. Department of Energy, pits teams from 12 colleges in a competition to convert a Chevrolet Lumina, Dodge Intrepid or Ford Taurus into a high-mileage, low-emission vehicle - a student version of the goals being pursued by the Big 3 in the partnership. After inspections and tests, the teams will drive their vehicles on an endurance run from Detroit to Washington, D.C., this week.
All but one of the student vehicles employed a hybrid powertrain - using a piston engine to drive an electric generator, or the vehicle wheels, or both. That same type of configuration is the likely choice for the partnership's cars.
But some teams employed exotic technologies and materials, such as carbon-fiber body panels, that are too expensive for mass-production vehicles.