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Tough road ahead for US autos

Few features of modern society are more vulnerable to oil shortages and rising energy prices than the automobile. Twice during the past six years, disruptions in the world oil market have brought long lines at filling stations throughout the Western world, and gasoline prices have climbed to unprecedented levels.

And if the 1970s have been unkind to the automobile, the 1980s are likely to be even more unfriendly. Oil supplies are expected to remain tight as more and more oil-exporting countries hold down their rates of production in order to stretch the life of their reserves or to adjust their oil reserves to their economic needs. Such conservationist policies -- which are already being followed by some key oil producers -- could cause world oil production to level off in the near future.

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The automobile will be squeezed hard by this tightening of the oil market, for it will be competing with more essential claimants for scarce fuel supplies. Producing food, heating homes, powering factories, and running trucks and buses will all have higher priority than the automobile in the allocation of oil supplies. Gasoline shortages in the United States last summer, for example, resulted partly from government policies to ensure that adequate amounts of heating oil will be available this coming winter.

Tight oil supplies will mean higher prices, which in turn will translate into more costly gasoline. In several countries -- Bulgaria, East Germany, Greece, and Turkey -- gasoline prices have already passed $3 a (US) gallon. India, Japan, South Africa, and France are on the verge of moving above the $3 mark. Already, filling the tank of a standard-sized American car would cost $58 in France. In the United States, it now costs about $20 to fill up; five years ago it cost less than $10, and five years hence it would cost $50, as US oil prices move toward the world level.

This growing precariousness of oil supplies and the rapid escalation of gasoline prices will force major changes in the design and the role of the automobile. The auto industry is entering perhaps its most turbulent era since Henry Ford introduced the Model T seven decades ago.

The most obvious and urgent change is the redesign of automobiles to squeeze more miles from each gallon of fuel. Car manufacturers in the United States are striving to meet federal regulations that require new cars to get 27.5 miles per gallon in 1985 -- double the mileage achieved by 1973 models. Even without such a push from the federal government, however, the auto industry would be forced to improve the efficiency of its products to meet burgeoning consumer demand for smaller, more economical vehicles. Imports have captured 22 percent of the US car market this year, there are long waiting lists for the most efficient models , and gas-guzzlers are clogging dealers' lots.

The swiftest route to fuel savings lies in reducing the weight of automobiles , and American cars are prime candidates for weight reduction. Before Detroit launched its fuel economy program in the mid-'70s, the average US- manufactured automobile was more than 1,000 pounds heavier than typical European or Japanese models. By reducing the size of today's models, and by replacing heavy materials with lighter substitutes, American car manufacturers expect to strip almost half a ton from the average US car by 1985.

Weight reduction is largely responsible for the significant improvements that have already been made in the fuel economy of new cars. Cars rolling off Detroit's assembly lines today get about 20 miles per gallon on the average; in 1973, they managed less than 14 m.p.g. But technological improvements will be needed in the years ahead to boost efficiency further.

There are no magical technologies that will double the efficiency of automobiles overnight. Efficiency improvements will be won through a variety of changes in engine, body, and transmission design, such as switching to front- wheel drive, which eliminates the weight of the powertrain, improving lubricants to reduce friction, restyling body shapes to reduce wind resistance, and installing electronic controls to regulate ignition timing and fuel intake. General Motors is also hoping to use diesel engines in about 15 percent of its cars by the mid-'80s, and the Ford Motor Company is developing a more frugal gasoline engine that burns a weaker air-fuel mixture.

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These improvements should be sufficient to raise the average fuel economy of new American cars to 27.5 m.p.g. by 1985, which will bring them to about the same level of efficiency as today's European and Japanese cars. Although the changes will be costly -- American automakers are already having difficulty raising sufficient capital at a time of depressed earnings -- they will be essential to help shield the automobile from fuel shortages and to help protect car owners from rising fuel costs.

The car of the mid-1980s will not represent the last word in fuel economy, however. Former Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams has challenged the automobile industry to raise the level of fuel economy of new cars to 50 miles per gallon by the end of the century. That goal is technologically achievable: the Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel already gets 42 m.p.g., and several gasoline-propelled cars are approaching that level of efficiency. But it will require further progress in the development of lighter, stronger materials, and continued improvements in basic automobile technology. It will also require a further shift in consumer's preferences away from large, powerful cars toward smaller and more frugal automobiles.

Such a shift is already evident, and it is likely to be reinforced by steadily rising gasoline prices. Eventually, a small, relatively low- speed urban vehicle may become the chief workhorse for most families, providing efficient transport for commuting, shopping, and similar trips.

Improving the efficiency of automobiles will have a significant impact on the demand for gasoline in the years ahead. Consumption of gasoline is down by about 3 percent this year compared with 1978, and the Department of Transportation has projected that it may continue to decline throughout the 1980 s as the improvements in efficiency begin to take effect. Automobiles now consume close to one-third of the United States' oil supplies, and thus this moderating demand will have a marked impact on the nation's overall thirst for oil.

But squeezing more miles from each gallon of gasoline will be only one of the adjustments needed in the transportation system in response to potential oil shortages and rising prices. While gasoline was cheap and plentiful in the quarter-century following World War II, the automobile began to dominate passenger transportation. Spurred by massive road-building programs, low-density suburban planning, and lack of investment in public transportation, the automobile assumed a central place in the lives of most people.

Since 1973, however, ridership on public transport has been increasing, and government authorities are beginning to channel funds into more efficient transportation systems. These trends are likely to continue as oil prices climb.

The transportation system that grew and matured during an era when oil was priced at $2 a barrel is thus gradually being transformed into one that will operate more efficiently in an era when oil reaches $40 per barrel.