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Automakers make technology case at auto show

WASHINGTON - Displaying green cars, automakers told the Obama administration on Tuesday that they have the technology to help the country reduce its dependence on imported oil and help thestruggling industry enter a new era.

Members of President Barack Obama 's Cabinet and lawmakers visited the Washington Auto Show, viewing fuel-efficient cars, plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles under development. The cars are part of a shift away from conventional gasoline engines.

"Our industry has been part of the problem," said Stefan Jacoby, Volkswagen AG's top executive in North America. "Now weare determined to be part of the solution."

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Environmental Protection Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Carol Browner, Obama's coordinator of energy and climate-related issues, reviewed the latest from General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Toyota MotorCorp. and others. The audience included former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"The stimulus is going to make all of this even more possible," Browner told a representative with lithium-ion batterymanufacturer A123Systems while inspecting a retrofitted plug-in Toyota Prius.

The economic stimulus package before the Senate includes $2 billion for development of advanced batteries, a key component for plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The entire industry is suffering from the economic recession and a steep decline in auto sales. In sales data released Tuesday, GM's U.S. sales had fallen 49 percent and Toyota's declined 32 percent.

General Motors and Chrysler LLC, meanwhile, have received a combined $17.4 billion in government loans to keep the struggling companies afloat. The Detroit automakers are expected to submit plans by Feb. 17 that show how they could become profitable in the future.

Despite the gloom, several lawmakers offered positive views of the industry. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a leadingenvironmentalist in Congress, said he expected GM and Chrysler toshow progress in their reports to Congress.

Markey said he hoped lawmakers would "keep the auto industry viable" while ensuring that it "helps with our problem with imported oil and the emission of greenhouse gases."

Automakers expect more stringent fuel-efficiency standards. Obama has asked the EPA to reconsider past denials of applicationsby California and other states that want to set their own limits on greenhouse gas.

The Obama administration also plans to set new federal fuel economy standards for 2011 model-year autos as part of a 2007 law to force new cars and trucks to reach 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase.

Automakers oppose California's program and want the government to set a single standard. Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, suggested a potential middle ground, noting her state was anxious to "try to work on something that will help both the auto industry and help the planet."

"We believe the country should have standards for fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions that work together and we think that California can be a part of that," Nichols said.


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