Study adds fuel to debate over car efficiency

Government report says vehicles can be more fuel-efficient, as Congress weighs tougher standards.

High-mileage cars - are they dangerous?

Not necessarily. But after the federal government slapped fuel-economy standards on automakers in the early 1970s, they responded in the short term by making cars smaller and lighter. The result: more US traffic fatalities than there might otherwise have been, according to a new National Academy of Sciences report.

The long-awaited NAS study also points out that today, new technologies promise mileage improvements without major reductions in auto size.

But by mentioning "mileage" and "safety" in the same sentence, the NAS may have given opponents of tougher government fuel standards something of a political boost. Victory in Washington debates can depend on how issues are framed, and automakers have long chafed against the political linkage of efficiency and environmentalism.

"Now the best things in life may be free, but improvements in fuel economy are not," says Dr. Paul Portney, chairman of the NAS committee that drafted the report.

Corporate average fuel economy standards, CAFE for short, have long been considered by experts as one of the most effective environmental and energy efficiency moves ever undertaken by the US government.

Over the long run they have prodded automakers to accomplish what Congress intended, which is to raise the fuel economy of most all models in their lines. Without CAFE in place, US drivers today would be burning up some 2.8 million more barrels of oil a day than they do, says NAS.

There is one big loophole in CAFE, however - sport-utility vehicles and light trucks. They are are held to less strict standards than cars, since at the time Congress passed the fuel standards, sedans and station wagons were the family norm, not SUVs.

The light-truck loophole

But Galaxies, VistaCruisers, and Monacos are long gone, replaced in today's suburban driveways by vehicles that more closely resemble tanks, logging trucks, or garages with tinted windows. SUVs now account for about half of all new vehicle sales.

The House, as part of its debate on energy issues, is set to consider toughening CAFE standards this week. As things now stand, lawmakers face two choices: either opt for changes under the current plan that would save an estimated 65,000 barrels of oil a day, or go for higher mile-per-gallon requirements, per a plan from Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts.

Representative Markey's proposal would increase CAFE requirements over the next decade for both cars, sport-utility vehicles, and light trucks.

Congress has long been tied in knots over whether to tinker with the venerable CAFE standards. In previous years, for instance, lawmakers have passed provisions banning the Department of Transportation from even studying the implications of raising mandated mileage rates.

Thus the National Academy of Sciences report was requested by Congress as a means of at least shedding a little light on this debate.

The study does conclude that substantial increases in the fuel efficiency of vehicles are possible. New technologies such as variable valve timing and five-speed automatic transmissions mean that automakers can raise mileage rates without overly reducing the weight or performance of a vehicle - if they want.

The NAS study "is basically a triple for the environment, but it is not a home run," says Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "Even this industry-friendly panel said there's a lot of technology that the auto companies can use to safely improve the fuel economy of their vehicles."

Mileage costs money

But such improvements would cost money. Substantial mileage boosts would cost $513 for small cars, and up to $1,348 for large SUVs. Savings in gas money would allow that up-front cost to be recouped - but it would take the 14 years of an average vehicle's life span to do so.

Meanwhile, NAS researchers also became enmeshed in a discussion on vehicle safety.

Looking back at the original implementation of CAFE standards, the panel said that the need to raise mileage fast led automakers to simply pare weight and size from cars, making them flimsier in accidents.

The result may have been an extra 1,300 to 2,600 traffic deaths, according to NAS.

Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club calls the safety aspect of the report "bizarre," and says it makes little sense to look backward at the '70s when the issue is how to raise m.p.g. today.

But opponents of changing CAFE regulations say that it is about time the hidden danger was discussed in regard to higher-mileage autos.

If fuel standards are tightened, auto manufacturers might just as easily take the old approach of lightening down and paring off as adopt expensive new fuel-saving technologies, say critics.

They add that the GOP-controlled House and the Republican administration are likely to welcome this way of looking at the issue. Are fuel standards an environmental issue - or are they a health issue?

"It's about time that CAFE's lethal toll was acknowledged," said Sam Kazman, general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in a July 31 statement.

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