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U.S. ‘stuck in reverse’ on fuel economy

While Congress and the Bush administration debate ideas to improve fuel economy in automobiles, a new study says the United States is “stuck in reverse” when it comes to offering consumers a wide selection of fuel-efficient vehicles. By’s Roland Jones.
Citroen’s C1 1.4HDi diesel-powered car gets an impressive 57.4 miles per gallon, but you can’t buy one of them here in the United States.Bernard Asset / Citroen

While Congress and the Bush administration debate how to improve fuel economy in automobiles, a new study says the United States is “stuck in reverse” when it comes to offering consumers a wide selection of fuel-efficient vehicles.

The research from the Civil Society Institute, a not-for-profit think tank that focuses on energy and ecological issues, shows a growing “fuel-efficient car gap.”

CSI found that the number of vehicle models sold in the United States that achieve combined gas mileage of at least 40 miles per gallon actually has dropped from five in 2005 to just two in 2007 — the Honda Civic hybrid and the Toyota Prius hybrid.

Overseas, primarily in Europe, there are 113 vehicles for sale that get a combined 40 mpg, up from 86 in 2005. Combined gas mileage is the average of a vehicle’s city and highway mpg numbers.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that nearly two-thirds of the 113 highly fuel-efficient models that are unavailable to American consumers are either made by U.S.-based automobile manufacturers or by foreign manufacturers with substantial U.S. sales operations, such as Nissan and Toyota.

“These cars sold in Europe meet or exceed U.S. safety standards, so there is no reason why they shouldn’t be made available to U.S. consumers,” said CSI President Pam Solo.

“We have to face the unpleasant facts here: America is needlessly losing the race to develop the best fuel-efficient technology and then deliver it to the American consumer,” Solo said. “U.S. consumers say they are willing to buy these cars, so the big U.S. automakers are actually going backwards at a time when it’s possible to make cars that are more fuel efficient.”

A national poll conducted for CSI shows that millions of Americans would welcome the introduction of the fuel-efficient cars now being sold overseas. Nearly nine out of 10 respondents to the survey thought U.S. consumers should have access to these vehicles.

The poll also found that Americans want Congress to boost fuel efficiency standards. Four out of five respondents, including 86 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of Republicans and independents, said that they would support “Congress taking the lead to achieve the highest possible fuel efficiency as quickly as possible” by raising the fuel-efficiency requirements for U.S. vehicles to achieve the goal of 40 mpg.

The research was released as the House Energy and Commerce Committee prepares for a hearing Wednesday to consider President Bush's proposal to adjust fuel efficiency standards.

In his State of the Union address this month, Bush asked for authority to reform the fuel economy program as part of a broader plan to curb gasoline consumption by 20 percent over the next decade.

Fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars have remained unchanged for two decades at 27.5 miles per gallon. The Bush administration recently revamped the rules for light trucks, creating a sliding mileage scale that is based on a vehicle’s size. Now Bush wants to assign a similar measure to passenger cars.

In general, cars are far more fuel-efficient in Europe, where gas is much more expensive. In Europe, cars on average get 40 mpg, compared with 20.4 mpg for U.S. cars.

Most European vehicles cited in the CSI study run on diesel engines, which tend to achieve greater fuel efficiency than gas engines. Selling those cars in the United States is difficult because of emission standards, notes Walter McManus, a fuel economy expert at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

“For the most part, European diesels don’t meet U.S. emission standards,” McManus said. “Everyone is working to develop a cleaner diesel technology because the (Environmental Protection Agency) standards require gas and diesel engines to be equivalent in their emissions. That’s good news for the environment, but it means it’s harder to bring those vehicles over here.”

Another reason why many European models are not marketed in the United States is that labor unions object.

The traditional Big Three automakers — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — are in the middle of massive restructuring programs to reshape their businesses that depend in part on gaining concessions from the United Auto Workers and other unions.

“For years they have not been able to bring vehicles here that are going to displace their workers — this is a competitive challenge for the Big Three,” McManus said. “The unions have influence over the Big Three, and they can’t afford not to have the unions with them as they go through their restructuring. It’s hard to get the unions to agree to import vehicles when you are laying workers off. Overseas car companies like Toyota don’t have the same restrictions — they’ve been able to bring vehicles here from Japan to respond to consumers’ growing taste for more fuel-efficient cars.”

McManus, who worked in forecasting and market research for GM from 1989 to 1999, said the Big Three were essentially in denial about consumers’ desire for greater fuel efficiency for years. As recently as 2005, GM maintained that linking slower sales of sport utility vehicles with higher gas prices was the result of poor analysis, he said.

“They’ve had a change of heart, but it’s fairly recent,” he said. “We had data about consumers’ preferences about fuel economy, but we chose to ignore it; we thought it was an anomaly. But it’s by having a bias against fuel economy that we’ve put ourselves in the pickle we’re in now. The overall fuel economy leader is Honda, and then comes Toyota and Nissan and then the Big Three. And which of those automakers is making all the money out there?”