Right Lane for Fuel Economy

Market fluctuations are lowering gasoline prices and easing the energy crunch in the short term. But Congress and the Bush administration have an opportunity to do something of long-term value: raise the fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles.

A study about to be issued by a National Academy of Sciences panel should provide something of a road map. News reports indicate it will support higher standards for SUVs and light trucks. The popularity of those vehicles is the reason average fuel economy in the US is the lowest it has been in two decades, at about 24 miles per gallon.

To boost efficiency, the panel endorses a combination of technological advances and regulatory changes. New engine designs, ready for the market, promise cleaner combustion and greater mileage. Regulatory adjustments could close loopholes that allow manufacturers to tilt production toward less efficient models.

In particular, the current system that demands much lower mileage from SUVs and light trucks than from cars ought to go. One suggestion from the panel is to set up a market in fuel-economy credits that would create incentives for automakers to boost fuel efficiency across their model lines.

For years, any push toward mandating higher-mileage vehicles was met with a shove in the other direction from Congress, where the car industry has powerful friends. That's changing now, as shown by the willingness of a House committee last week to approve a modest fuel-economy increase for SUVs, minivans, and light trucks.

But the outlook is for improvements that go way beyond the 2- to 3- miles-per-gallon boost envisioned by the House action. An 8 to 11 m.p.g. gain over the next few years is possible, according to the scientific panel. That could save hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day.

To their credit, some manufacturers are already building lighter SUVs and phasing in new engine technology. Government should do all it can to encourage that trend.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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