THE year is 2006. You step into your brand-new, mid-sized car, start the lean-burn, high-efficiency engine, and drive 30 miles to work and back.
If the auto industry gets its way, your 2006-model car will burn about one gallon of gasoline on that daily commute. But if environmentalists win the current debate over fuel efficiency in Washington, the same trip would consume only three quarts.
The public policy debate over that extra quart of gasoline has quietly grown more urgent as oil production in the United States declines and imports from the Middle East rise.
The National Research Council (NRC), at the request of two federal agencies, has tried to clarify the arguments over fuel efficiency standards. In a detailed, 10-month study, drawing upon some of the nation's best experts, NRC has set feasibility targets for all sizes of automobiles, light-duty pickup trucks, and vans.
Results of the NRC study seemed to please the auto industry more than the environmental community. But there was something for everyone to cheer about in the 259-page report.
"Balanced and useful," said Ford Motor Company of the study. "A valuable contribution," said General Motors. "The study confirms what we ... have been saying for years," said Chrysler Corporation.
Environmental advocates were pleased by NRC's insistence that greater fuel efficiency, combined with somewhat smaller cars, would not significantly reduce the safety of autos. Bush administration officials have argued strongly against smaller cars for safety reasons.
NRC, an arm of the National Academies of Science and Engineering, concluded that auto mileage standards set by the government could be raised - but not too fast. It cautioned that dramatic increases in auto mileage demanded by some bills in Congress are probably too ambitious, and would cost some auto workers their jobs.
Under the current law - called CAFE, for Corporate Average Fuel Economy - automakers are required to produce cars which average 27.5 miles per gallon.
NRC concluded that it was technically feasible to boost average auto mileage to 29 m.p.g. in 1996. It could rise to 31-to-33 m.p.g. in 2001 and 34-to-37 m.p.g. in 2006, NRC said.
Richard Meserve, a Washington attorney who chaired the NRC study, cautioned that "there is a question as to whether or not the benefit of improved fuel economy is worth the cost."
NRC estimates that requiring better fuel performance would increase the cost of new cars between $500 and $2,750 (in 1990 dollars) by 2006.
Balanced against those greater costs, however, would be fuel savings between $695 and $934 over the course of 100,000 miles of driving (based on a cost of $1 per gallon). Higher fuel costs would increase the savings.
The outcome of this debate could have long-term importance for American industry, the nation's environment, and US energy security.
The US auto industry, in a deep slump from the recession and Japanese competition, might be hard-pressed to meet sharply higher CAFE standards, NRC concludes. If the standards were raised too high, the long-term decline of the US auto industry could be aggravated, and sales could be lost to foreign competitors.
On the other hand, the nation's energy security is steadily declining as US wells pump less oil, and the nation becomes more dependent on foreign petroleum. If current trends hold, the US will soon be importing more than half its oil.
Auto executives were obviously pleased with the tone of the NRC's report.
Ford said it appreciated the study's recognition that current standards discriminate in favor of small-car producers like Honda, Nissan, and Toyota and against full-line auto companies like Ford and General Motors. The same mileage standards must be attained no matter what size cars a company specializes in.
But the report has its critics. John DeCicco, a research associate at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, suggests the study's timetable is much too slow. He notes that NRC uncritically accepted US auto industry claims that the correct product cycle for a new engine or transmission is 10 to 15 years.
Japanese firms like Honda churn out new engine designs every four years, which means fuel efficiency improvements can be added to their cars much faster.