Detroit and the Fuel-Economy Debate

Regarding the opinion-page column "Detroit Misses the Mark, Again," Aug. 19: US carmakers have never said that improved fuel economy "was absolutely impossible." What they said in the 1970s was that cars would have to be far smaller and lighter to achieve major increases in fleet average fuel economy. And that's precisely what happened.In the current fight over unrealistic Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) increases of another 40 percent, Detroit is joined by Japanese and European automakers. All have publicly repeated their commitment to additional fuel-economy improvements. But no company now has the technology to dramatically raise gas mileage without making cars even smaller and lighter, further compromising consumer choice and highway safety. Contrary to the authors' view, consumers do ultimately determine the level of fuel economy achieved because their choices in the marketplace determine whether manufacturers meet CAFE standards. With the return of low gasoline prices and a stable fuel supply since the 1970s, consumers have increasingly opted for larger vehicles. Thus, in order to meet CAFE standards, domestic manufacturers have had to offer discounts, rebates, and cash incentives to consumers on smaller, more fuel-efficient cars to offset the sale of the larger models. On trade, the authors totally "miss the mark" themselves. Detroit is not demanding restrictions on Japanese minivans; it seeks nothing more than Japanese producers' compliance with US and international anti-dumping laws. The final salvo attacks Detroit's safety record, using air bags as an example. Apparently the authors forgot that from 1974 to 1976 General Motors tooled up to build 100,000 vehicles a year equipped with air bags. But the company sold only about 10,000 air-bag-equipped cars and had to abandon the project. The current resurgence in air-bag production is being led by US manufacturers - companies that, based on accident statistics, build the safest cars in the world. Thomas H. Hanna, Washington, Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association

Letters are welcome. Only a selection can be published, subject to condensation, and none acknowledged. Please address them to "Readers Write," One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115.

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