The Fuel-Efficiency Pedal

Picture a future, perhaps 10 or 15 years hence, with streams of hybrid gas/electric cars purring down US highways - and only the occasional gas-only SUV hulking along.

That's what some members of the Senate Commerce Committee are trying to do. They're pondering a committee study that proposes a 50 percent boost in average fuel efficiency of US vehicles, to 37 m.p.g.

That kind of change would reshuffle the mix of vehicles as manufacturers - particularly the US "Big Three" - struggle to comply.

The senators' vision may be a long way off. But there's a mounting consensus that something must be done to cut America's reliance on foreign oil. Sept 11 heightened that feeling. Even fervent backers of increased domestic drilling - in ANWR and elsewhere - admit that tougher fuel-efficiency standards must be part of the mix.

The Bush administration has joined the effort, with the Transportation Department preparing to study increases in the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. The department's recommendations are likely to be more attentive to Detroit's concerns than the Senate's.

What's most important, however, is that momentum is building toward stronger standards. The current rules are out of date, given today's prevalence of gas-guzzling SUVs.

Carmakers are capable, certainly, of producing higher-mileage vehicles that include important safety features. The Japanese manufacturers are ahead on this score, but Detroit can catch up, especially with a bit more governmental foot on the fuel-efficiency pedal.

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