TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Some predicted it would end up looking like an episode of the “Jerry Springer Show,” with angry panelists throwing chairs at one another.

But like most discussions on government regulation, the “Policy Matters” session at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here turns out to be a relatively tame affair, as speakers with opposing views talk past each other.

Addressing the question, “How much faith can we put in technology?”, Sean McAlinden, CAR’s outspoken chief economist, opens with a presentation sarcastically titled “Why Not 540 MPG?”

Key automotive technologies typically go through a “hype cycle” that heralds new ideas as saviors of the industry, followed by their gradual slip into a “trough of disillusionment” as reality sets in, McAlinden says.

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells currently are at the bottom of the trough and likely will be followed by ethanol and other biofuels and electric vehicles, he predicts. But hybrid-electric vehicles and advanced gasoline engines should survive.

McAlinden also attacks the studies and research he says were the basis of the Obama Admin.’s new 2025 corporate average fuel economy targets, saying they represent “massively exaggerated extrapolations.”

He also believes environmentalists’ understanding of technology is flawed, and fears a “tsunami of mandates” could create a “mandates recession.”

Fellow panel member Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign at the Center for Auto Safety and a staunch industry critic, predictably takes a different stance.

He castigates auto makers for promoting engine power and vehicle capacities “most consumers don’t need.”

For the future, Becker advises the U.S. industry to follow the “European model,” where smaller vehicles are sold with more content, and to focus on technology to build the world’s most-advanced vehicles.

dwinter@wardsauto.com