General Motors and Ford will receive millions of dollars in U.S. Department of Energy funding intended to help the auto makers bring new energy-saving technologies to market ahead of their global competitors.

“We’ve got to transform our economy; we’ve got to see more advanced manufacturing products and processes,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) tells journalists on a conference call to announce the awards. “This (funding) is a very important part of that.”

Stabenow says subsidizing corporate research and development keeps U.S. manufacturers competitive in an environment where some countries, such as China, fund emerging technology 100%.

David Danielson, assistant secretary-Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the DOE, says the federal grants also ensures energy-saving technologies emerge because corporations often withhold funding riskier ideas due to the cyclicality of quarterly profits.

“We are only funding things out on the edge of the (technological) roadmap where, given the constraints of quarter-to-quarter profitability, (OEMs) are not able to invest as much as they need to be truly globally competitive,” he says. “We work with (corporations) to identify areas that taxpayer investments have a high impact.”

The DOE has taken much heat this year for another program providing loans to auto makers.

The Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program set aside $25 billion for advanced electric vehicles, but only a fraction of the money has been awarded because of the failures of another DOE lending program.

Critics of the ATVM say the program has caused job losses and private equity to retreat from investing in EV startups.

“This is strategic,” Stabenow says of the new DOE program. “It’s focused on those kinds of things that not only help the individual companies but (also) have broader application for multiple industries.”

The Clean Energy Manufacturing program will send $54 million to 13 projects. Corporations will chip in $17 million.

GM will use $2.7 million to commercialize a magnesium casting process capable of reducing the weight of a typical vehicle door 60%, greatly improving the auto maker’s ability to make its cars and trucks more fuel-efficient.

GM will work with magnesium expert Meridian Lightweight Technologies and Ohio State University on a super-vacuum die-casting process that is 50% more energy-efficient than current processes.

The auto maker recently revealed its Chinese operations produced the first low-pressure-cast magnesium part. The suspension control arm is 30% lighter than one made of aluminum.

Ford will work on two projects. Collaboration with chemical maker Dow and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory will use $9 million to study ways to make carbon-fiber parts 20% less expensive while cutting the material’s production emissions 50%.

Another Ford project with the University of Utah will research the low-cost production of titanium alloys with a $1.5 million grant.

Danielson estimates the research funding will commercialize the auto makers’ technologies in the “5- to 10-year timeframe.”

Auto makers are researching ways to make vehicles more efficient ahead of stricter fuel-economy and carbon-dioxide emissions regulations around the world. In the U.S., they will have to reach 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) by 2017 and upwards of 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) by 2025.

jamend@wardsauto.com