Public Interest Group Unveils its own SUV Design

PHILADELPHIA, Sept 16 David Morgan writing for Reuters reported that the Union of Concerned Scientists and other critics of America's romance with the sport utility vehicle on Tuesday unveiled the blueprint of what they called a safer, more fuel-efficient SUV based largely on features already available in the market.

Engineers from the Washington-based public-interest group said their design, the "UCS Guardian," would improve gas mileage up to 71 percent versus the Ford Explorer, and curtail SUV-related deaths without sacrificing power or performance.

The key is a series of off-the-shelf features that would add between $735 and $2,960 to an SUV price-tag but pay for themselves in five years through lower fuel costs, they said.

For example the UCS Guardian design, a modified Ford Explorer, would curb rollover deaths with $50 worth of roof design modifications, "smart" seat belts and window curtain air bags.

Greater fuel efficiency would be had through a six-cylinder engine, a six-speed automatic transmission, an integrated starter-generator allowing the engine to switch off in traffic jams, improved aerodynamics and a lower unibody design.

"Families deserve to know that they can get a better SUV," said David Friedman, research director for the UCS Clean Vehicles Program.

"The problem is not SUV owners. The problem is that people think SUVs are safer than cars. They're not. In fact SUVs don't even have to meet the same safety and fuel standards as cars, and automakers have fought to keep it that way," he added.

But auto industry officials rejected UCS claims, saying that advanced safety and fuel efficiency options were already available to SUV buyers.

"Vehicles that consumers are choosing are not always the vehicles that the Union of Concerned Scientists would like them to buy," said Charles Territo, spokesman for the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (News - Websites).

While charging automakers with using out-dated technology to maximize profits on most SUV models, the UCS engineers acknowledged that Ford Motor Co.'s Volvo XC90 already incorporates most of the safety features they advocate while the Honda Motor Co. Ltd's (Tokyo:7267.T - News) Pilot SUV offers a similar fuel-efficient engine design.

SUVs represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. auto market over the past decade, while the Ford Explorer ranks as the biggest-selling SUV.

But environmentalists and consumer-safety advocates view SUVs as gas-guzzling behemoths that have reduced U.S. fuel economy to a 22-year low while making the road more dangerous.

The UCS, which was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1970s, launched the new "Guardian" design in four U.S. cities along with the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer group founded by Consumers Union and Ralph Nader.

To drive home the need for a new SUV design, the UCS said current models burn 40 percent more gasoline than the average car and with pickup trucks accounted for over 60 percent of the increase in 2002 traffic deaths.

By contrast, the Guardian design, if adopted for all SUVs, would raise gas mileage from 21 miles per gallon to as high as 36.3 mpg while reducing traffic deaths by up to 2,900 fatalities a year, according to the UCS.

The group also said the Guardian would save 800,000 barrels of oil per day in 2015, or about half of U.S. oil imports from Saudi Arabia, if applied to the light truck fleet over the next five

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