Virtually every executive with Cleveland-based Eaton Corp. from middle management to the chairman of the board is convinced that the federal government has fumbled profoundly and dealt ineptly with the questions of automotive emissions, safety, noise and fuel economy in recent years.

So what, you might ask. So this. Eaton is a strong, automotive-oriented but diversified multinational manufacturing organization that prides itself on innovation.

Further, it stands to make money - and generally has done so - with any tightening of the limits on auto emissions, safety, noise and fuel economy.

The first time the auto air bag was seen publicly over a decade ago, it had Eaton's name on it. The company now has stopped all airbag research and development.

Eaton is a major manufacturer of truck brakes and a leading producer of the antiskid system ordered by the federal government on buses and large trucks. The company now is seriously considering an end to all that work, and has given notice to company suppliers that purchases of antiskid parts may end soon.

E.M. de Windt, chairman of the board, said yesterday of government efforts dealing with automobiles that he is "not unsympathetic with their objectives, but their unrealistic and unending regulations . . . have screwed up our market."

Robert Richards, Eaton group vice president for truck components, said, "I just wished the government would stay the hell out." And Carlton Swanson, group vice president for automotive and controls, said he was a believer in the air bag, but now seriously doubts they'll ever be widespread and successful.

The Eaton executives were interviewed at the company's engineering and research laboratories here. The occasion was an event they call "Press Day," when they generally invite four or five dozen reporters - most of them from business and trade magazines - to spend a day with Eaton executives.

The Eaton attitude about government efforts was not intended to be a major part of the day, and stood out only because nearly every item involved would normally represent sales and profits for the company.

Eaton is "caught in the middle because we can't determine whether the customer will accept" such items, de Windt said. The previous secretary of transportation had made a sound compromise to test the safety and acceptance of the airbag, "but when Brock Adams came in, he threw it out in 90 days," de Windt said.

"The basic conservatism of John Q. Public" is a key factor, Swanson said. It took 20 years for automatic transmissions to reach installation rates of 50 percent in new cars; power steering took 14 years; and power brakes and air conditioning took 17 years; he said.

Eaton's automatic cruise control was introduced in 1976, and cruise controls are now on a third of the new cars sold, he said.

Swanson said the company has just finished a major study of potential auto power plants from electrics through diesels, evaluating them through the year 2000 on 10 major parameters such as cost, durability, size, emmissions and noise.

The major conclusion is that the gasoline-powered reciprocating engine "power the great majority of American cars during the remainder of this century," he said.

Swanson cited four primary reasons: economics and technology; buyer conservatism; coming improvements in the gasoline engine; and government regulations on fuel economy and emmissions.

But the engine that "drives your automobile to a New Year's Eve party in 1999," while powered by gasoline on lower-octane derivities and reciprocating, will be very different, Swanson said.

Direct fuel injection, varieties of turbocharging, and superior electronic engine controls all will be common then, he said.