Every time you start up the family car to buy groceries or take the kids to soccer practice, a sort of meter is running - noting the impact on your wallet, the environment, and reliance on foreign oil. Whether you're driving a gas-electric Prius from Toyota or a Hummer from General Motors, of course, makes a big difference in just how fast that meter runs.
As a result, autos and "light trucks" - pickups, minivans, and SUVs - feature prominently today in any political or scientific discussion about US energy policy or climate change. And with the country at war in an oil-rich part of the world, and US gas pump prices bumping up against $3 a gallon, the question of fuel efficiency is burning as bright as ever since Uncle Sam began setting standards 30 years ago.
The Bush administration this week announced its proposal to make light trucks more efficient. The announcement comes even as individual states push to limit greenhouse gases, which could put pressure on automakers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles.
The proposal is a complicated formula based on the dimensions (not weight) of six different categories of such vehicles. Smaller pickups, minivans, and SUVs would have to become stingier on gas between now and 2011 than under current law; for larger light truck models, the requirement would actually be reduced somewhat (see chart, right). Highway behemoths - Hummer H2s, Ford Excursions, and other models weighing between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds - would remain exempt from fuel economy standards on the grounds that they're a very small percentage of all personal vehicles on the road today.
"This plan will save gas and result in less pain at the pump for motorists," says Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. Administration officials say the plan is expected to save 10 billion gallons of gasoline in coming years.
For their part, environmentalists use phrases like "paltry gesture" and "woefully inadequate" to describe the plan. The National Environment Trust notes that the 10 billion gallon savings "is only 2 percent of the approximately 500 billion gallons of gasoline that will be consumed during the four model years."
There's no doubt that the vehicles addressed in the proposed fuel standards are a critical part of what's happening on American roads today. Since Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards began in the mid-1970s, light trucks as a portion of all vehicles purchased in the US have nearly tripled, to 56 percent.
It's also apparent that the political and technological landscape regarding vehicle fuel efficiency is shifting as well. According to a National Academy of Sciences study, existing technologies involving engines, transmissions, tires, and body design could raise the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks to more than 30 m.p.g.
While there's been no rush to embrace high-mileage vehicles on Capitol Hill, a recent letter from 19 Republican and 18 Democratic House members asked that the National Highway Safety Administration "significantly increase fuel economy standards in its upcoming rulemaking process." Some lawmakers have signed on to proposed legislation introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine that would increase standards for SUVs to the same level as cars (27.5 m.p.g) by 2011.
Meanwhile, nine states are moving on their own to lower climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, which likely would require higher fuel efficiency standards since vehicles are the major emitter of such gases.
With strong backing from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California officials are fighting efforts by the auto industry to block the initiative. Arguing that the federal law establishing CAFE regulations forbids states from setting their own standards, automakers say sharply reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is a backdoor way to enforce better gas mileage.
California's "Energy Action Plan" sets as one goal forming a coalition of states "for the purposes of influencing the federal government to double the corporate average fuel economy standards." Oregon and Washington State are moving that way.
The new federal rules are likely to favor US auto manufacturers over their foreign rivals in separating out minvans, pickups, and SUVs, rather than having these less-efficient vehicles considered part of their overall product line.
Given today's fuel prices, there are likely to be winners in any case. Toyota, maker of the Prius, recently announced that it will develop 10 new gas-electric hybrid models. And sales of motor scooters, which can get up to 80 m.p.g., have doubled since 2000. The Bush fuel standards proposal is open for public comment for 90 days. The final rule is to be published in April.