WASHINGTON — A prestigious research panel has concluded that technology already widely available could significantly cut fuel consumption by cars and light trucks without sacrificing safety or performance.
With some technologies, the fuel consumption by passenger cars, sport utility vehicles, minivans and light trucks can be reduced by nearly half, but at a price — anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars per vehicle, the National Research Council said.
Trevor Jones, chairman of the panel that wrote the report, said: "Consumers will need to consider the tradeoffs between higher vehicle prices and saving fuel and money at the gas pump."
The report, which looked at three types of automotive engines, found:
• The full combination of improved technologies could reduce fuel consumption by 29 percent in medium and large cars and pickup trucks with conventional engines at an added cost to consumers of about $2,200.
• Switching to diesel engines and components could yield fuel savings of about 37 percent at an added cost of $5,900 per vehicle.
• Gas-electric hybrid engines and components could reduce fuel as much as 43 percent at an increase of $6,000 per vehicle.
Smaller reductions in fuel savings can be achieved for considerably less money, the report noted. For example, one available conventional engine technology allows a six- or eight-cylinder engine to run on fewer cylinders when full engine power isn't needed, such as on flat roads. That can reduce fuel consumption as much as 10 percent at a retail price increase of about $350 to $500 per vehicle.
"Fuel efficiency is a cleaner, cheaper, faster way to go to meet our energy demands than drilling in increasingly risky places," said Roland Hwang, the Natural Resources Defense Council's transportation program director.
Key to whether consumers will spend more to buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks is the price of gasoline, said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. When gas was $4 a gallon two years ago, consumers were lining up for those models; as the price of gas declined, consumer interest waned.
Automakers are eager to sell more fuel-efficient vehicles, "but with relatively inexpensive fuels, it's a challenge to us," Bergquist said.
Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the cost estimates in the report for incorporating fuel-saving technologies are "very conservative" and most likely too high.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a "tear down" study under way that looks part-by-part at the components in vehicles, how much they cost to produce and how much it would cost to reduce fuel consumption, Kliesch said. The results of that study should provide a more accurate picture of the cost of adding fuel-saving technologies to new cars and light trucks, he said.