WASHINGTON (AP) -- A prestigious U.S. 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 in a report released Thursday.
Critics of offshore drilling pounced on the findings as further evidence that there is a host of options beyond drilling for solving U.S. energy woes.
Said Trevor Jones, chairman of the panel that wrote the report: "Consumers will need to consider the trade-offs 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 is not 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.
Over two-thirds of total U.S. oil consumption is for transportation, and almost two-thirds of transportation consumption is gasoline used primarily in cars and light trucks.
"Fuel efficiency is a cleaner, cheaper, faster way to go to meet our energy demands than drilling in increasingly risky places -- we don't need to be drilling for more oil in the Gulf," said Roland Hwang, the Natural Resources Defense Council's transportation program director.
Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said automakers have doubled the number of models on the market that achieve an average of 30 mpg (13 kpl) or higher on the highway in the past year, from 100 models to 200.
Key to whether consumers will spend more to buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks is the price of gasoline, she said. When gas was $4 a gallon ($1 a liter) 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.
Department of Transportation rules require new cars and trucks to achieve a fleetwide average of 34.1 mpg (14.5 kpl) by 2016. Federal officials announced two weeks ago that they have begun work on new round of fuel efficiency standards to kick in between 2017 and 2025.