Engineers say it is now possible for Detroit to make even big cars like sport utility vehicles much more fuel-efficient in a way that's relatively simple and relatively inexpensive.
But there's little pressure on the automakers to do that. American consumers keep buying more and more gas-guzzling SUVs – and that only makes the nation's oil addiction worse. Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.
At the Smith-Cairns Ford Dealership in the suburbs of New York City, SUVs are by far the biggest sellers, and manager Tony Forcelli can't remember the last time he was even asked about gas mileage.
Why are they such big sellers? “Comfort and the amenities, you know,” says Forcelli. “The availability in a truck to have power windows, DVD players, power seats, power door locks -- a lot of comfort features, leather interior, a moon roof.”
But what if America could have it all: the thrill of driving our big cars and the satisfaction of cutting down on gas consumption? What if there were a way to double the mileage of SUVs? Of course, it would add to the sticker price, and mean that SUVs would be a little less powerful.
Interested? Well, studies done by MIT, the National Academy of Sciences and several environmental groups say it could be done with some new, high-tech fixes.
John DeCicco, an automotive engineer with the group Environmental Defense, is the author of one of those studies. He used computer modeling to redesign the Ford Explorer, the nation's most popular SUV.
“You could take that vehicle and put a better engine in it, an engine that cuts the energy waste that's going on in today's engines,” says DeCicco. “You could put a better transmission in it, take weight out of the vehicle without making it any smaller. If you do that you could improve that 20 mile-per-gallon vehicle today to 35 miles per gallon.”
He says there is new technology that turns the engine off while the car is waiting at a stoplight, and restarts it seamlessly. He proposes better aerodynamics and the latest in lightweight materials for a package that, by his estimate, would add only $1,400 to the sticker price -- but save $500 a year in gas.
In fact, a television ad from anti-SUV groups claims that automakers have the technology to make a 40-mile-per-gallon SUV literally "on the shelf."
“Those are theoretical studies on paper,” says Neil Schilke, who’s been director of engineering at General Motors since 1996. “We're not talking about theoretical stuff here. We're talking about designing vehicles to put in customers' hands.”
But can it be done?
“I'm saying it can't be done without compromising the requirements that are realistic in the marketplace, such as climbing hills, acceleration performance and overall safety requirements,” says Schilke.
Environmentalists, however, say it could be done if the automakers froze the size of SUVs where they are today and put the brakes on the horsepower race.
American cars have nearly twice the horsepower they had just 20 years ago. And as power grows, so do the gallons of gas.
So why are there heavier and larger vehicles? Schilke says the market demands it.
Critics of Detroit agree that improvements have been made, but instead of applying those changes to fuel economy, they’ve put it all toward horsepower – and let the fuel economy go by the wayside.
“Well, that's not really true,” says Schilke. “There’s a really good comparison between our 1990 pickup trucks and our 2000 pickup trucks. And over that 10-year span, there's been a performance improvement in terms of acceleration of the order of 10 to 15 percent. And there's been a fuel economy improvement of the order of 15 percent, too.”
But a closer look at the statistics shows that his dates were carefully chosen. Since 2000, the fuel economy of GM's pickups has fallen back down below where it was in 1990. Nearly all the automakers, including the Japanese, are losing ground on gas mileage, which they all know hurts their image.
To deal with that, GM has been on tour with a display of their cars of the future with better mileage. But it’s not the mileage the critics would like to see.
Under the hood of a GMC Sierra full-size pickup truck is one of the gas-saving technologies the environmentalists are talking about. It's called displacement on demand.
“You would want full engine power when you're climbing a hill. And you'd have that,” says Schilke. “But then, when you get to steady cruising speed on the highway, you would go from operating on eight cylinders to operating on only four cylinders.”
He says the only indication you have that the engine is cutting back to half power is when the dashboard light turns green.
Schilke says displacement on demand will be put in millions of GM vehicles and should improve fuel efficiency by two to four miles a gallon. But GM plans to make even more radical changes in its lineup over the next decade -- with hybrids and eventually cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
“We have 600 engineers and scientists around the world that are developing fuel cells,” says Schilke.
But hydrogen technology is still iffy. And hybrids may never catch on with the consumer because of the added cost -- about $3,000 - $4,000 a car.
How does the monster car like a Hummer figure into that commitment?
“Well I think it's, it's part of the, of the company's attempt to satisfy our, our customer profile,” says Schilke.
Without the huge profits from Hummers, Durangos and Expeditions, Detroit's financial picture would be even more depressing than it is today. Ford and Chrysler are barely making a profit, and GM makes more money selling mortgages than cars.
“The auto industry has been hiding behind this issue of consumer demand for decades,” says Michelle Robinson, policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based environmental group.
“If consumers knew that they could purchase the same SUV they are driving today that got significantly farther on a gallon of gas, we think they'd make that choice. They are not given that choice today. And without government action, there's no incentive for the industry to give consumers that choice.”
And without government pressure on the auto industry, Robinson says we wouldn’t now have the seat belts, air bags, emission controls or the gas mileage we see in cars today.
Detroit blew a gasket earlier this year when the Bush administration raised the gas mileage requirement for SUVs by 1.5 miles a gallon. GM claimed that even that little increase could lead the industry into an economic downturn.
“Our proposal to increase fuel efficiency hasn't been that popular in Detroit. I admit it. But we thought it was the right thing to do,” says Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham.
Abraham says the administration is also putting a billion dollars into research on hydrogen cars.
An estimated 150 million cars have been sold in the U.S. – at this rate, will we be driving gas cars forever?
“Well, there are a lot of things we need to do in the next 20 years to try to improve our situation so that we're ready when we get to the time of hydrogen vehicles,” says Abraham.
For now, the Energy Department is financing research on hybrid technology and cleaner diesel engines.
“We're also supporting the introduction of more tax credits to try to provide more incentives for people to buy hybrids as well as fuel-cell vehicles,” says Abraham.
The administration is supporting tax credits of up to $8,000 for so-called "green" cars. But at the same time, President Bush has expanded a tax break for the purchase of the biggest of the big SUVs, which are classified as trucks.
“In the '80s, this benefit was created that would give an individual $25,000 in a tax break if they purchased a truck,” says Robinson.
The tax break applies to vehicles over 6,000 pounds, which used to mean things like delivery trucks. But today, it includes luxury mega-SUVs like the Toyota Land Cruiser and Ford Excursion. And what began as a $25,000 tax break has grown to $100,000 when Congress passed the president's economic stimulus package last spring.
“We think small businesses need to have support at this time to keep them afloat, to keep the economy moving ahead,” says Abraham.
But are they encouraging the small business person to buy the biggest gas guzzler there is – all for a tax break?
“I'm not gonna concede that that would be the way these would be used,” says Abraham. “We'll have to wait and see what, what happens.”
Web sites that give tax advice are now running headlines like "Why it may pay for your next business car to be a heavy SUV." It's also no surprise that auto dealers are also alerting customers to the new loophole.
And people are going for it. Many accountants told 60 Minutes that they have clients who could have bought a car for business. But instead, they bought a big SUV, just to get the tax break, including real estate agents, attorneys, restaurant owners, even dentists.