DETROIT — IT'S back. And it's sending shivers through Detroit's executive offices. Not a horror film, not a cold wave, not even a new assault by the Japanese, but the latest version of the Bryan bill. Sponsored by Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada, the measure would boost the fuel economy of the average American car to 40 miles per gallon (m.p.g.) within a decade. The bill nearly cleared the Senate last year. Now, sponsors say, the war in the Middle East is enough to garner the crucial swing votes needed to push it through.
``We're back, and this time we intend to win,'' Senator Bryan said recently. ``We're going to fast-track it.''
Formally known as the ``Motor Vehicle Fuel Efficiency Act of 1991,'' the measure would require each carmaker to increase the fuel economy of its average passenger car 20 percent by 1996 and 40 percent by 2001. The effect would be a national average of 34 m.p.g. by 1996 and 40 m.p.g. by 2001. Currently, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) is set at 27.5 m.p.g.
The measure would also require manufacturers to improve the fuel economy of their minivans, pickups, and other light trucks.
Not surprisingly, the Bryan bill drew immediate fire from Detroit. Tom Hanna, president of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association (MVMA) - the lobbying arm of the Big Three - charged the proposal is ``unachievable with any known technology.''
Bryan's backers counter that they've heard the criticism before. Way back in the 1970s, when cars were getting barely 10 miles a gallon, the industry said it couldn't meet the original CAFE goals. Today, however, the typical passenger car gets at least 27.5 m.p.g., the current CAFE standard.
Forty miles per gallon is doable, says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. But not easily, and certainly not cheaply. ``The easier-to-play cards are already out of the deck,'' Mr. Cole says.
Just by improving tires and making cars more aerodynamic, the Big Three boosted fuel economy three or four m.p.g. But future increases will take billions of dollars of investment in new engines, transmissions, and lightweight materials like plastics and composites, Cole cautions.
And it is almost certain that to meet the 40 mile-a-gallon standard, tomorrow's cars will have to be significantly downsized. Ford chairman Harold Poling, for example, has said that under the Bryan bill, his company's largest car would probably be no bigger than today's compact Ford Tempo.
That would be true not only for the Big Three, but for the Japanese, as well.
Toyota, for example, would probably have to abandon its Lexus LS400 luxury car, says John Koenig, Toyota Motor Sales, USA's corporate product planning manager. ``We'd essentially become a Tercel and Corolla car company.''
The Japanese are particularly upset with the Bryan bill because it requires each carmaker to increase its own fuel economy by a set percentage. So those who already produce the most efficient vehicles would have to make the biggest gains in the future.
``No question this is obviously targeted against the imports, who have done a better job developing fuel economical vehicles,'' Mr. Koenig says.
Auto industry leaders are hoping to delay debate on the Bryan bill until at least August. That's when an independent report is due from the National Academy of Sciences assessing the technical feasibility of future CAFE increases.
Mr. Bryan, however, says that in light of the current Middle East crisis, there is no time to waste. Imported oil is now the single largest factor in the United States trade deficit, and it provides a weapon to a dictator like Saddam Hussein.
By 2001, Bryan says, his bill would save an estimated 2.8 million barrels of oil a day, going a long way towards restoring America's energy independence.
``Before the invasions of Kuwait, we imported 730,000 barrels of oil per day from Iraq and Kuwait combined,'' Bryan says. ``When this bill is fully implemented, we will save four times that amount of oil.''
Industry lobbyists are likely to devote a lot of their effort in the coming months towards scuttling the Bryan bill. But the sentiment in Washington is clearly leaning in favor of boosting CAFE.
``Everyone in the industry expects some increase,'' Toyota's Koenig says.
Adds a well-placed MVMA lobbyist, ``I believe we've already lost the battle. CAFE is going to go up.'' The only question, both say, is whether it will climb all the way up to 40 m.p.g.