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Date:03/26/1998
Session:105th Congress (Second Session)
Witness(es):William Agnew
Credentials:  Director (Retired), Programs and Plans, General Motors Corporation, and Chair, Committee on the Advanced Automotive Technologies Plan, CETS, NRC
Chamber:House
Committee:Interior Subcommittee, Appropriations Committee
Subject:Advanced Automotive Technologies (FY99 Interior Appropriations)

WRITTEN TESTIMONY SUBMITTED:

Statement from The National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Advanced Automotive Technologies Plan with Regard to Its Review of the Research and Development Plan for the D.O.E. Office of Advanced Automotive Technologies

William Agnew, Chairman

The Office of Advanced Automotive Technologies (OAAT) within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) was established in 1996 to consolidate all DOE’s automotive technology R&D into an integrated program for light vehicles. One of the first activities undertaken by OAAT was to develop a plan defining the scope, focus, and content of its Advanced Automotive Technologies program for calendar years 1997 through 2001. The Research and Development Plan for the Office of Advanced Automotive Technologies describes the research that OAAT needs to undertake “to reduce the most serious technical barriers to the development of energy-efficient automotive technologies that could significantly reduce the nation’s dependence on petroleum.” In response to a request from the OAAT to conduct an independent review of the OAAT R&D Plan, the NRC formed the Committee on Advanced Automotive Technologies Plan. The committee met twice between July and October, 1997, and submitted its report to the OAAT on November 28, 1997. The published version of the committee’s report is Review of the Research and Development Plan for the Office of Advanced Automotive Technologies, 1998. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. Highlights of the committee’s assessment are presented below.

OVERALL APPROACH

The committee commended the OAAT on its R&D Plan (the plan), which is a worthy attempt to integrate and coordinate research on advanced automotive technologies within DOE. In the committee’s judgment, the technologies described in the plan generally offer potential benefits to the nation in terms of reducing petroleum consumptionincreasing energy efficiency and adverse environmental impacts of the automobile, even if the ambitious OAAT goals are not met. The plan emphasizes jointly funded partnerships among government agencies, the national laboratories, universities, and industry to develop and validate technologies. The committee encouraged OAAT to continue using pursue such partnerships, which permit the federal government to stimulate technology development and offer important opportunities for an exchange of ideas between government and industry. In most cases, the OAAT plan is attentive to the differing and complementary contributions of government and private sector R&D to technology development. In the committee’s view, the participation of industry in the implementation and commercialization of advanced automotive technologies is essential. However, the OAAT should fund only generic, precompetitive R&D that industry would not undertake on its own.

The technical section of the plan provides information on technical barriers and approaches to overcoming these barriers for vehicle systems and seven individual technology areas, namely: advanced engines, fuel cells, high-power energy storage, power electronics and electrical machines, advanced automotive materials, alternative fuels, and electric vehicle batteries. The committee found the technical plan to be logical and well structured, with a clear progression from the technical barriers to the technical tasks. The technical barriers are, in general, appropriately defined in that they represent the most significant hurdles to technology development. However, the quality of the strategies for overcoming the technical barriers varies considerably. An important feature of the technical plan is the incorporation of Go/No Go decision points corresponding to potential technical “showstoppers.” The committee considered the Go/No Go methodology to be sensible for high risk R&D, although it noted that decisive implementation of the “Go/No Go” approach will be essential for the overall success of the proposed R&D portfolio.

GOALS AND OBJECTIVES

One of DOE's goals is to “enhance energy productivity”. The committee recognized the benefits of this goal as part of a strategy for responding to possible future energy supply shortages or more stringent environmental regulations, such as mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

In keeping with DOE’s goals, OAAT's goal is to develop technologies that will enable the introduction into the domestic market of vehicles that have several times the fuel efficiency of current, comparable conventional vehicles. At the same time, these advanced technology vehicles will have to meet all future emissions regulations and be competitive with conventional vehicles in other ways (including cost). In the committee’s view, the OAAT goal is commendable but will be very difficult to reach.

The objectives of the OAAT plan specify fuel economy levels to be attained and the dates for meeting technical targets and for marketing the advanced vehicles. Some of the technical targets appear to be overly optimistic considering the present state of the technologies, and the marketing objectives are probably not attainable without higher gasoline prices or other market incentives. In the committee’s judgment, the plan should recognize the possibility that OAAT will fall short of meeting the stated objectives in the specified time. But the committee believed that important benefits could accrue even if the objectives are not fully met. For example, fuel economy values of 40 or 60 mpg—as opposed to the target values of 80 and 100 mpg—would considerably reduce petroleum consumption.

Alternative fuels may help reduce the consumption of petroleum-based fuels in the United States. However, the OAAT role in enabling the efficient use of alternative fuels does not go beyond pre-production development of new vehicle technologies and R&D related to the development of low-cost refueling facilities infrastructure. Because at least two automotive companies are already producing ethanol-fueled vehicles, the committee considered the OAAT vehicle tasks related to ethanol-fueled vehicles to be inappropriate for federal government support.

The committee supported setting target dates for achieving performance goals, but questions OAAT's decision to set dates when vehicles will be “commercially viable” or “could be successfully marketed.” Dates when marketing becomes feasible are out of OAAT control and are strongly dependent on when vehicles become "cost competitive" (see discussion of costs below) and when other market factors come into play.

COSTS

Throughout the plan, advanced technology vehicles are referred to as being cost competitive with conventional vehicles, but the term “cost competitive” is not clearly. The committee interpreted “cost competitive” to mean that the overall cost of owning and operating an advanced vehicle over its life is equal to or less than the cost of a comparable conventional vehicle at a particulara given date. The committee believes that a requirement to be competitive with the cost of today's conventional vehicles is unrealistic in that many of the technologies under consideration are likely to increase cost over that of today’s vehicles, even adjusted for economics. Although changes in market conditions could make cost competitiveness easier to attain (petroleum prices could rise substantially or government mandated market incentives could be introduced), the committee believed that the OAAT should set more realistic objectives for cost competitiveness. The plan mightshould also indicate clearly that some increase in cost over that of a conventional vehicle at a specific date might be justified on the basis of broad societal benefits.

The committee found that the strategies for reducingtreatment of the cost of the various technologies in the technical plan are generally inadequate. The plan emphasizes performance rather than cost and offers few specific technical approaches for reducing the costs of various systems.

STRATEGIC APPROACH

In some instances, the technical roadmaps described in the plan simply state that the barriers will be overcome without indicating what specific actions will be taken to do so. The committee was concerned that some of these statements relate to technology areas where the necessary breakthroughs have not materialized despite significant R&D efforts over a period of many years (e.g., batteries, gas turbines, ceramic materials for gas turbines). It is also not clear from the plan what will be done if performance falls somewhat, but not hopelessly, short of the levels judged necessary to proceed with the R&D program. In this context, the committee considerd that improved systems analysis tools are essential not only to configure vehicles to meet overall objectives, but also to establish performance requirements for component technologies and trade-offs as a basis for making Go/No Go decisions. These tools should include vehicle simulation models capable of comparing various vehicle options on a consistent basis to clarify questions of relative performance and fuel economy. Simulation models should be verified with experimental results as these become available. The systems analysis must include all of the objectives, not just fuel economy.

The plan is also unclear as to how the OAAT CIDI program will relate towill be managed in anticipation of the light-vehicle market from 2004 to 2008, which could be quite different from today’s market because of the shift in vehicle sales to pickup trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles.

SETTING PRIORITIES

In the committee’s judgment, in the face of budget uncertainties, OAAT must set priorities both within and across technologies. The committee recognized the difficulty of setting priorities, particularly across different technology areas. Nevertheless, good management requires clear priorities, and the committee urged OAAT to be decisive in this regard. Extending timelines or cutting uniform percentages across the entire plan in response to budget reductions may be expedient temporary measures but are not effective long-term practices. The committee again emphasized the importance of developing systems analysis tools to assess performance requirements and trade-offs in support of a technically robust set of priorities for R&D.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Specific recommendations for improving the OAAT plan can be found in the NRC committee report. These recommendations address broad issues as well as each of the technology areas included in the plan.

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