The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released a report on the implementation of the Alternative Motor Fuels Act of 1988 (AMFA), which encourages the development and use of methanol, ethanol and natural gas, and promotes the production of alternative fuel vehicles.

The NHTSA also proposed extending the often-criticised programme until model year 2008.

AMFA provides special procedures for calculating the fuel economy of “dual-fueled” vehicles for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) compliance purposes, which substantially increase the calculated fuel economy values for these vehicles, providing a production incentive for manufacturers. Critics argue this simply allows “gas guzzlers” driven primarily on petrol to get away with a lower CAFE rating.

The Act directed NHTSA (in consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy (DOE)) to evaluate the dual-fueled vehicle incentive programme and provide a report to Congress with a preliminary conclusion on whether to extend the program beyond the 2004 model year.

The report concludes that the AMFA CAFE credit program has been successful in stimulating a significant increase in the availability of alternative fuel vehicles, with well over a million of these vehicles — primarily flexible fuel vehicles that can run on petrol and on a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petrol (E85) — currently on the road.

However, the report does acknowledge that, due to the lagging development of the alternative fuel infrastructure and the cost of E85, the vast majority of dual-fuel vehicles rarely operate on alternative fuel.

“Even if relatively few of these vehicles are currently being operated on E85, having a fleet of vehicles that can be operated on non-petroleum fuels is still valuable because it contributes to domestic energy security, encourages an increase in the number of E85 refueling sites, and provides consumers an alternative if there are petrol shortages or petrol prices increase significantly,” said NHTSA Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge.

Given the mixed results of the programme to date, the report concludes that it would be prudent for federal agencies, Congress, industry, and other interested stakeholders to identify additional programmes and authorities that could contribute to expanding the infrastructure and achieving greater use of alternative fuels in dual-fuel vehicles that receive the CAFE credit.

In a second action, NHTSA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) proposing to extend the availability of the CAFE credit incentive for dual-fueled vehicles for four years, until the end of the 2008 model year.

The Act specifies that a decision on extending the programme for four years must be made at this time.

NHTSA gave these reasons for its proposed four-year extension of the CAFE credit incentive:

* The vehicles affected by the programme can operate on a blend of 85 percent ethanol, a domestic fuel, whose increased use can decrease US reliance on foreign petroleum.

* It would give Congress, other executive branch agencies, regional authorities, and the private sector ample time to identify, adopt and implement efforts to enhance the alternative fuel infrastructure.

* Vehicle manufacturers would not likely maintain their current level of efforts to produce alternative fuel vehicles in the absence of the incentive programme and would decrease the potential energy security benefit of having a fleet of vehicles that can operate on alternative fuels.

* Energy benefits will only be realised through the extension of the incentive policy if other incentives, programmes, or market conditions stimulate the production, distribution, and use of alternative fuels over the next four years.