Pete Koehler is an avid outdoorsman who likes to drive into the mountains near Seattle to go climbing. So it bothers him that sport-utility vehicles, like his Jeep Wrangler, typically get far worse gas mileage than passenger cars. “I think they have the capability to do better,” he said, referring to automakers.
THE BIG THREE automakers finally have acknowledged that Koehler is right in thinking there is room for improvement, as environmentalists long have contended.
After years of doing little to improve fuel economy in the United States, Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler all have pledged to boost gas mileage significantly on pickup trucks and SUVs over the next few years.
If they fail to do it voluntarily, environmentalists have high hopes for legislation making its way through Congress that would force them to act by closing a loophole in a 27-year old law that sets minimum fuel-economy standards.
For years, the powerful automotive lobby has battled against any changes in standards known as CAFE — corporate average fuel economy — and the manufacturers do not appear inclined to give up the fight. “The industry believes there are better ways to increase fuel economy in cars than CAFE,” said Charlie Torido, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He argued that consumers should determine the proper fuel-economy levels on the open market.
The problem is, over the past 20 years U.S. automakers have done exactly what the law required and nothing more. CAFÉ standards have been virtually frozen since the mid-1980s, and overall fuel economy has fallen due to the popularity of SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks, known collectively as light trucks. Light trucks now account for 45 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States and are subject to fuel consumption requirements that are about 25 percent lower than those that apply to cars. And passenger car fuel economy has barely budged over the past 15 years after rising nearly 40 percent in the first seven years of the CAFE program.
INNOVATORS OR PROCRASTINATORS?
Automakers strenuously deny they are withholding technology that could boost fuel economy overnight but say when it comes to cars, every new feature goes under the microscope of cost-benefit analysis.
“Our vehicle customers are not willing to pay a lot for fuel economy, so we have to do it at low cost or no cost to the consumer,” said Brendan Prebo, a Ford spokesman.
As gasoline prices head back toward $2 a gallon, that cost-benefit formula may be shifting, and sales of the largest SUVs are dropping as Americans turn toward smaller, lighter vehicles. In addition, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of potential gains from advanced technology like the new super-efficient gas-electric hybrid engines in the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius.
John DeCicco, a senior fellow at Environmental Defense, said there is no industry conspiracy against higher-mileage vehicles, but Detroit ‘s marketing wizards have concluded that their engineering dollars would be better spent on almost any other feature, from cupholders to on-board entertainment systems.
“Even though people gripe about the high cost of gasoline, the product planners have the sense that something else is going to sell better when it gets into the showroom,” said DeCicco.
But Michelle Robinson, senior transportation advocate for Union of Concerned Scientists, said the world is changing.
“Consumers are beginning to understand that it doesn’t take exotic technology to make an SUV or light truck that is twice as fuel-efficient as the SUVs that they are driving,” she said.
A 35 PERCENT SOLUTION
While advanced technologies hold promise, environmentalists want to see substantial improvements in the conventional gas-powered vehicles that will dominate the market for years, if not decades.
By using existing technologies that would add $1,000 or $1,500 to the cost of a new car, they say automakers could boost mileage by 35-to-70 percent — more than making up for the added cost in fuel savings.
The obvious place to start, says Robinson, is by closing the SUV loophole, which has exempted the gas-guzzlers from the car standards and led to the lowest overall new-vehicle miles per gallon in 20 years.
But that presents political problems. SUVs are hugely profitable for automakers and hugely popular with consumers. And the automakers have powerful friends on both sides of the congressional aisle as well as in the White House.
With Democrats retaking control of the Senate, environmentalists see a glimmer of hope. The Bush administration has said it will announce its position on fuel economy standards after it gets the results of a federal report due this summer.
“The industry really is feeling the pressure, and it has become very clear that it is in the national interest to improve fuel efficiency, especially in the light trucks,” said DeCicco.
FUEL ECONOMY’S SLOW EVOLUTION
Automakers have been required to meet minimum fuel economy standards since 1978 under legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ford in the wake of the OPEC oil crisis of the 1970s. But the standards have changed little since the mid-1980s and now stand at an average 27.5 miles a gallon for cars and 20.7 for light trucks.
The largest and most gas-thirsty vehicles, including versions of General Motors’ Chevy Suburban and the Ford Excursion, are classified as medium-duty trucks and exempted from CAFÉ standards altogether.
“When CAFÉ was created in 1974, Congress recognized that light trucks should have a different standard because light trucks have different utilities,” said Torido of the automakers group.
Ellen Dickson of Ford says legislation introduced in April by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that would subsidize the development of an alternative fuel infrastructure and provide tax credits to consumers who buy vehicles powered by fuel cells, hybrid gas-electric motors or alternative fuels is a better solution than requiring medium-duty trucks to meet CAFE standards.
But the environmental lobby’s hopes are pinned to a bill introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would require pickup trucks and SUVs to meet the more stringent automobile mileage requirements by the 2007 model year. The bill also would wipe out the exemption for the heaviest SUVs and pickup trucks.
DeCicco, of Environmental Defense, believes the best solution would be for automakers to cut a deal in which they would agree to tougher restrictions on fuel economy for pickup trucks and SUVs. The Bush administration might be eager to broker such a deal to smooth the way for its ambitious energy policy, which focuses on boosting supply through more drilling on federal land, and streamlining licensing procedures for new power plants.