WASHINGTON -- Cars and trucks that can burn an ethanol blend as well as gasoline often are ridiculed as shams. Such vehicles merely help automakers sneak by federal fuel economy standards, critics complain.
But flexible-fuel vehicles may yet curb the nation's dependence on imported oil. They could benefit the environment as well.
Environmental groups note that most flexible-fuel vehicles never burn a drop of ethanol. They say that ethanol, a form of alcohol, requires a huge energy input when it is made from corn. And only a handful of filling stations sell it.
Evidence is growing, though, that ethanol can be made efficiently with genetically engineered enzymes applied to nonfood crops and plant waste. These include cornstalks, rice and wheat straw, sugar beet waste and even byproducts of beer making, proponents say.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., plans legislation that would require carmakers to build more flexible-fuel vehicles. Lieberman cites Brazil's success with ethanol made from sugar cane.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz and former CIA Director James Woolsey compare such developments to advances in gasoline production in the early 20th century.
They head the private, nonprofit Committee on the Present Danger, which was formed in 1950 to oppose the spread of communism. It since has turned its attention to terrorism, supporting technologies aimed at reducing U.S. consumption of imported oil, especially from the Middle East. Its agenda includes flexible-fuel vehicles.
Credit, often where needed
These are the CAFE credits automakers got in 2004 for offering flexible-fuel vehicles, followed by their fleet averages for those categories and the standards they had to meet. The maximum credit allowed by law is 1.2 mpg.
|General Motors light trucks||1.2 mpg||21.2||20.7|
|Ford domestic cars||0.6 mpg||26.5*||27.5|
|Ford light trucks||1.2 mpg||21.1||20.7|
|DaimlerChrysler domestic cars||0.5 mpg||29.7||27.5|
|DaimlerChrysler imported cars||0.5 mpg||26.6*||27.5|
|*Carmakers that fail to meet standards in a given year can make up for the shortfall with credits from past or future years|
|Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration|
Larry Burns, General Motors' vice president for r&d and strategic planning, is one of the industry's strongest advocates of hydrogen fuel cells. Still, Burns supports flexible-fuel vehicles that run on ethanol made from cellulose.
"We think it's a very promising road map, given the agricultural strength of our nation," Burns told . "It seems like a natural that you would want to get some energy independence off of that play."
Some proponents say flexible-fuel vehicles are cheaper to build than gasoline-electric hybrids. They also have more realistic prospects of gaining wide acceptance than fuel-cell vehicles, advocates claim.
More on the way
More than 4 million flexible-fuel vehicles are on U.S. roads. The Big 3 made most of them.
Many of these vehicles' owners may not know they could use E85, a fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. If they did, they probably couldn't find it. The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition says 511 U.S. filling stations sell E85. That's out of about 180,000 stations nationwide.
Automakers that build flexible-fuel vehicles get credits toward meeting corporate average fuel economy standards. A car company can add as much as 1.2 mpg to its fleet average by selling dual-fuel vehicles. Current standards are 27.5 mpg for cars and 21.6 mpg for light trucks.
Some companies say they are eager to make more flexible-fuel vehicles. Ford Motor Co. CEO Bill Ford's new marketing campaign touts his company's plan to build as many as 280,000 vehicles that can use E85 in the 2006 model year.
GM can build 450,000 flexible-fuel vehicles a year.
You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at [email protected]