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Detroit's big three automakers are about as fond of congressional mandates as campers are of mosquitoes. Carmakers aren't happy about tougher mileage standards in the new energy bill before the Senate. But Detroit does like the call for more homegrown fuel such as ethanol.
To start our report on energy matters this afternoon, NPR's David Welna has this story.
DAVID WELNA: Thanks to extensive experience in Brazil, where many cars run entirely on ethanol, American automakers are old hands at making vehicles that can withstand the normally corrosive effects of alcohol-based fuels. Still, it cost between $50 and $100 more to produce such a vehicle. Bob Dinneen is president of the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group. He says Detroit had not shown a lot of interest in expanding its U.S. production of such vehicles until recently.
BOB DINNEEN: There's no question that the domestic auto manufacturers, led by GM and Ford and Chrysler, have had a much greater commitment to the development of flexible fuel technology and biofuels over the past couple of years. And I think they've seen it as a place where they've shown leadership and they're responding to consumer interest in domestically produced fuels.
SUE CISHKE: We believe Congress should enact incentives to encourage the manufacturer, distribution and availability of renewable fuels, and the production of flexible fuel vehicles.
WELNA: That's Sue Cishke, Ford Motor Company's vice president for environmental engineering. At a Capitol Hill news conference, Cishke declared that Ford is committed to making vehicles that can use the 85 percent ethanol fuel known as E-85.
CISHKE: Last November, we told the president that we stand ready to make half our annual vehicles produced flexible fuel vehicles for E-85 or biodiesel by the year 2012. And that would be millions more vehicles capable of running on domestically produced renewable fuel.
DAVID FRIEDMANN: The real challenge with the auto industry's support for ethanol is that, so far, they've been just been using it to avoid increasing fuel economy.
WELNA: So says the Union of Concerned Scientists, David Friedmann, who's an expert on alternative fuel vehicles. Although in many parts of the country, it's nearly impossible to find ethanol fuel for sale, Friedmann says those vehicles are sold everywhere and Detroit gets mileage credit as if they were all using biofuels.
FRIEDMANN: Ford, Chrysler and GM sell tens of thousands of these flex-fuel vehicles. And many people don't even know that they could run on ethanol. And yet, they can lower their fuel economy requirements by 1.2 miles per gallon.
WELNA: The auto companies will continue to get that mileage advantage by making flex-fuel vehicles at least through the year 2010. But the renewable fuel industry's Dinneen thinks to push for more biofuels from Detroit is not simply a matter of more easily meeting the corporate average fuel efficiency standards known as CAFE.
FRIEDMANN: I think that their commitment to this is real and it's not cynical and it's not tied to the CAFE. I think they want to see these vehicles and this technology move forward.
WELNA: And Ford's Cishke says the energy bill's tougher CAFE standards are not the way to go.
CISHKE: The levels that are set right now would, you know - nobody can get there. Well, I'm speaking for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, including Toyota, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler. There's nobody that can meet those targets right now.
WELNA: If the bill is approved as it stands now, half the cars made five years from now will have to be flex-fuel vehicles.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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