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Washington Beat

Washington Beat

Light trucks, vans, 4x4s receive
same safety standards as cars

Designers must put the same major safety features required for passenger cars on light trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a rule mandating side-impact protection on the larger vehicles. Side-safety protection includes stronger doors and interior padding. Calling light trucks "the station wagons of the 1990s," NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez adds: "Buyers expect these passenger-car substitutes to have the same safety features." The new requirement takes effect Sept. 1, 1998. It affects light trucks, vans, and sport-utility models with a gross vehicle weight of 6,000 lbs or less. The safety agency started a phase-in of side-impact tests for passenger cars two years ago. That requirement covers all passenger cars on Sept. 1, 1996. In extending the side-impact standard to light trucks, the safety agency did not allow such a phase-in. NHTSA officials also are pondering whether light trucks should meet the fuel economy standard of 27.5 mpg for passenger cars. A report from the National Academy of Sciences suggests that fuel economy levels of 26 to 28 mpg for light trucks is technically possible by 2006.

Civilian users of GPS to get coordinates within 7 yards

Much finer accuracy is coming for civilian users of the navigation, positioning, and timing system known as the Global Positioning System (GPS). The government awarded a $475 million contract to Wilcox Electric to develop 36 ground stations. Using signals from 24 military satellites, the stations will rebroadcast to GPS users, who can then adjust results they get from satellites. While current equipment is accurate to within about 100 yards, the new Wide Area Augmentation System is expected to reduce the range to 7 yards. A committee of the National Research Council, meanwhile, urges the military to open its more-accurate GPS signals to civilians. It says the military can resort to selective jamming in case of hostilities.

Full, live fire testing of F-22 impractical, panel maintains

Development of the F-22, the Air Force's newest fighter, can safely skip live fire tests on a full-up version of the plane in combat form. So concludes a report by the Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems of the National Research Council. Such tests offer low benefits for the costs, the panel says. Instead, the study supports under-fire tests of F-22 components and subsystems, and different configurations of partially assembled aircraft. The com- mission contends that the F-22 design reduces the aircraft's vulnerability. The F-22 has a multiple-load path structure and features subsystem-redundancy and a method to prevent fuel explosion.

Making lubricants from yeast among projects funded by ATP

Can high-performance industrial lubricants be made from specially bred yeast? The search for an answer is one of 24 projects newly selected for funding under the Advanced Technology Program (ATP). Also picked are projects for an improved X-ray source for medical diagnostic equipment and a miniaturized diagnostic system that can perform up to 100 DNA tests. The National Institute of Standards & Technology made 17 of the awards under its 1995 general competition, which is open to proposals from any area of technology. The other seven awards fell under an ATP program on advanced tools for DNA diagnostics. It is one of 11 programs focusing on technology areas deemed to have the best opportunities for major economic returns. The 24 projects will cost about $60.5 million in ATP funding, matched by about $52.4 million from private-sector partners--if carried through to completion. But, that's questionable. ATP is high on the list of government ventures facing the budget-cutting axe.

Tug-of-war escalates in Congress over privatizing Patent Office

The White House and many Congressional leaders are pushing plans to privatize the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Meanwhile, a coalition of inventors and small businesses that strongly oppose the idea is gaining supporters on Capitol Hill. They claim that large U.S. and foreign firms could dominate a private patent office and undercut their efforts to get patents. Rep. Carlos Moorhead, chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property, wrote the chief bill to privatize. Its progress is snared in debate over another patent bill sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., CA). Rohrabacher's bill would reverse a law adopted last year limiting patent terms to 20 years from the date an inventor first applies for the patent. The 20-year rule is similar to that in most other large industrial countries. Rohrabacher and a group of individual inventors and small, high-tech firms want the United States to return to the old patent law. It protected a patent for 17 years after full approval. Rohrabacher points out that obtaining an American patent often takes more than three years.

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