A GROUP of third-graders darts past Secret Service agents to get a close look at the three futuristic cars sitting in the White House driveway.
''How do you get in, mister?'' says a girl to a nearby man. ''I'll show you, kids,'' he says, lifting the car's large gull-wing door.
''Look at the funny seats!'' says one boy. Pieces of mesh stretched across frames, they are lighter than traditional car seats, have better air circulation and leave ''no sticky backs on hot days,'' explains a General Motors Corporation (GM) engineer.
''It weighs half as much as a regular car, kids,'' says the man of the sleek, 1,400-lb. vehicle. The GM Ultralight is made from the same carbon-fiber material as high-tech tennis rackets and golf clubs. It also gets 80 miles per gallon.
The Ultralight was one of three cars on hand to celebrate a new collaborative effort to develop an ultra-fuel-efficient vehicle. Officially called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), the effort includes the government, GM, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler Corporation. Ford and Chrysler have designed ultra-fuel-efficient cars as well.
Concern over energy security, smog, and greenhouse-gas emissions brought together government, industry, consumer advocates, and environmentalists in the quest for fuel efficiency. But consensus splinters over achieving high efficiency now and maintaining current standards for safety, performance, and price.
Engineers achieved efficiency in the GM car by halving its weight, improving aerodynamics by about 30 percent over production cars, and decreasing ''rolling resistance'' or friction in the mechanical parts which cause the car to slow.
Despite high fuel efficiency, the GM Ultralight sacrifices little in performance. It goes from 0 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h. in 7.8 seconds and has a top speed of 135 m.p.h. The frame is stronger and stiffer than traditional cars, although that may not mean it is always safer. ''You don't want to make a car incredibly stiff because then the shock of a collision can be transmitted to the occupants,'' says Ron York, director of GM's PNGV program.
''Today's cars,'' he says, ''crush in a controlled manner so they absorb the impact energy and shield the occupant.'' The research team is only beginning to examine how to mold the composite materials for better safety.
Meanwhile, the price of the body materials alone is $13,000 -- many times higher than the steel needed for a normal production car. And if sold today, the car would likely cost $100,000. With such exorbitant current costs, PNGV projects that its innovations will not be on the market for 10 years.
Critics say the partnership is too slow. The PNGV, like ''a car without an engine,'' is not going anywhere, says Joseph Goffman, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington.
''This project is a bit like putting a man on the moon'' and will take time, counters Mark Kemmer, a senior GM spokesman.
But Sheila Lynch, director of the Boston-based Northeast Alternative Vehicle Consortium, says there are technologies available today which GM, Ford, and Chrysler -- the Big Three -- are stalling by prolonging research work. The companies, she says, are unwilling to alter their ''enormous current business.''
Small companies argue that the government is inhibiting faster technology development by channeling all $300 million of its annual automotive research and development budget through PNGV -- whose only members are the Big Three.
In the past five years, Solectria Corporation of Arlington, Mass., has extended the one-charge range of its best electric test-vehicle from 35 miles to 214 miles.
Last year the company grossed $2 million. Although the Big Three have massive research and development budgets, ''we've shown that you can get a lot done in a small time frame on relative peanuts,'' says Arvind Rajan, Solectria's vice president for planning and business development.
Some recent innovations from Solectria and others (including the Big Three) are:
* Regenerative brakes that slow an electric car by channeling up to 25 percent of the wheels' energy back into the battery. The energy is then re-used to power the car.
*Electrically charged fly wheels that power a car for up to 60 miles. ''Wind something up which is hanging from a string,'' says Dr. York, ''then let it go to release the kinetic energy.'' For cars, millions of carbon fibers are wound around ''fly wheels'' which are housed in a vacuum.
*Hybrid drive trains that combine batteries, gas-powered engines, and sometimes fly-wheels to create ultra-low-emission vehicles.
But even the vehicles of small companies are out of most consumers' price range. Solectria sells a converted Chevrolet S-10 Pickup which runs 70 miles on a 20-minute charge and has a top speed of 70 m.p.h. The base price is $43,837 while a regular S-10 sells for $11,890.
Many argue that government-imposed regulations or incentives produce faster results than research-oriented partnerships. But President Clinton has been reluctant to impose more regulation on the Big Three. Individual states, however, are less restrained about regulations. A coalition of nine Northeastern states is working to apply tough California emissions standards and high-efficiency-vehicle requirements to its cars. The Big Three are fighting the move in state courts.
For the federal government, two traditional options exist: raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFEs) which set a minimum average efficiency for each car company's fleet -- though there is broad disagreement over their ultimate effectiveness; and increasing fuel taxes, thereby discouraging driving because of higher gas prices. But both may be politically unpalatable.
Others suggest a system of ''feebates'' under which the government would reward buyers with a rebate for buying efficient cars or, like the current ''gas guzzler'' tax, penalize those who bought inefficient cars.
Mr. Goffman advocates a national limit on carbon-dioxide emissions. Manufacturers would buy on the open market as many ''pollution credits'' as they needed. If a company polluted less, it would pay less, thereby encouraging self-control.
But automakers decry regulations or incentives as the ''legislating of technology,'' which is ''high risk and high cost,'' Mr. Kemmer says.
''Regulation is a rough way to go [because] the price may go up more than the consumer sees value in the new technology'' thereby threatening sales, agrees Mark Plotkin, a senior associate at the nonpartisan Congressional Office of Technology Assessment
In the end, research -- spurred by incentives and regulations -- will achieve more fuel efficiency, says Chris Flavin, vice president of research at Worldwatch Institute in Washington.