Driving a 2001 Ford Taurus 500 miles from Washington, D.C., to Boston would burn about 20 gallons of gasoline. If reformers get their way, the same trip in a new fuel-efficient family sedan would use just 12 gallons of gas by 2012.
With strong public backing, members of Congress are discussing two major changes that could bring swift, and perhaps painful, change to the auto industry. The revamp being discussed includes:
* Requiring light trucks, including popular sport-utility vehicles like the Chevrolet Suburban and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, to meet the same mileage requirements as automobiles.
* Ratcheting up the mileage standards for both cars and light trucks to as much as 40 miles per gallon by 2012 and 55 miles per gallon by 2020.
General Motors, the world's largest automaker, says it will oppose both changes. But the pressure is on Congress and the White House. Rising gasoline prices, increasing imports, and the debate over global warming are all focusing critical attention on America's growing appetite for oil.
Federal fuel-efficiency standards have been frozen at 27.5 miles per gallon since the 1980s. But now the public appears in a mood to get tough with the auto industry.
A new nationwide Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll found that by nearly a 5-to-1 margin, Americans say they would favor a new law that would force manufacturers to increase auto and truck fuel mileage.
Even Republicans, the most skeptical group, favored higher fuel standards in the poll by better than a 2-to-1 margin. Democrats backed the higher standards by 7-to-1.
The Monitor survey was conducted June 7 to 10 and included interviews with 936 Americans aged 18 and higher. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
The Bush White House has reserved judgment - at least publicly. White House officials say the president is waiting until late July, when the National Academy of Sciences will complete a seven-month study on the efficacy of more stringent standards.
But Vice President Dick Cheney, visiting a GM research facility this week in Michigan, did not sound favorably disposed toward higher fuel-efficiency standards. "I'm one of those who believes deeply in the market, and I think we have to be very careful not to pass artificial, unfair standards that sound nice," he told officials.
Yesterday, the Union of Concerned Scientists weighed into the debate with a new report that strongly supported tougher fuel-efficiency goals. The report notes that during the energy crisis of the 1970s, the federal government imposed the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. At that time (1975), the typical American passenger vehicle got 13.1 miles per gallon.
CAFE pushed up auto fuel-efficiency requirements to 27.5 miles per gallon by 1985, but then something unexpected happened. Instead of driving autos, millions of Americans switched to minivans, sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), and pickup trucks. Those vehicles were required to attain only 20.7 miles per gallon.
Today, 46 percent of all passenger vehicles sold are in this "light truck" category and the effect has been to drag down the nation's overall fuel efficiency.
Yet Congress and the White House are nervous about boosting efficiency standards. The auto industry accounts for approximately one-seventh of the nation's economy. Any major action by Washington could endanger its prosperity. As The Detroit News observed in a Monday editorial: "Trucks, vans, and SUVs are Detroit's most profitable products. Strangle them and you kill jobs."
Another consideration is that gasoline prices have begun to go back down. If prices fall into the $1-a-gallon range, support for new laws could dry up.
Even so, the opportunities for saving fuel with new technology are tempting to some lawmakers.
Since the 1980s, with fuel prices low, Detroit, Japanese, and European automakers have often used advances in technology to boost performance rather than mileage. The new UCS report found that, from 1985 to 2000, vehicle makers used new technology to increase the power of light trucks by 61 percent, the weight by 17 percent, and the acceleration by 22 percent, while boosting mileage by 0 percent.
Similarly, auto acceleration increased by 23 percent, weight by 10 percent, and power by 53 percent, while mileage went up by just 4 percent.
In the long run, the most damaging argument against high efficiency may be the safety question. Boosting mileage has often meant making cars smaller. One of those surveyed in the Monitor/TIPP poll, Wallace Erickson, an oil field technician in Canadian, Texas, says after the first CAFE rules were passed, "They came out with little bitty cars that had better gas mileage, but people were getting injured in them.... It's a person's choice what they want to drive. Smaller cars are less safe."
Staff writer Sara Steindorf contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor