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Fuel Economy a High Octane Issue in US - 2002-02-13

Lawmakers in Washington will debate automobile fuel economy this week. Proposals from several United States senators call for manufacturers to build cars and trucks that go farther on a tank of gasoline. Auto company executives say such mandates threaten their industry.

At the Chicago Auto Show this month, the head of General Motors' North American operations, Gary Cowger, criticized proposals in Washington to increase fuel economy requirements.

"Make no mistake," he insisted, "General Motors is committed to improved fuel economy. We just do not see the wisdom of a policy mechanism that limits consumers' choice and gives some manufacturers an unfair advantage over others."

Since the 1970s, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have required that each automaker's inventory of vehicles meet certain average fuel economy requirements. Right now, the standard is 8.5 liters/100 km for cars and 11.4 for light trucks. Some Senate Republicans and Democrats want to increase the standard to around 7 liters/100 km for cars during the next decade. They say tougher standards would help reduce the United States' dependence on imported oil.

GM's Gary Cowger says CAFE standards have done little more than require car companies to build small cars he says relatively few people want to buy. "Even a vehicle that gets [3 liters per 100 km] means nothing in the real world if nobody likes it and no one can afford to buy it," he said.

Last year, Americans bought slightly more mini-vans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) than passenger cars. American auto companies say it would be tougher for them to meet the proposed new CAFE standards than it would be for foreign carmakers, because the domestic companies sell more light trucks than the importers do.

Environmentalists, like Sierra Club spokesman Ken Veitch, want new CAFE standards even tougher than those being proposed. They say carmakers should be able to meet the new requirements. "Automakers can and are able to implement existing technologies that can make cars and SUVs go farther on a gallon of gas safely and cheaply and without extra cost to the consumers," said Mr. Veitch.

The Bush administration is suggesting new fuel economy standards be based on a particular vehicle's weight, with heavier vehicles having lower mileage requirements. But the Sierra Club's Ken Veitch is doubtful that would help Americans save fuel. "What this is does is not encourage the overall fleet to become more fuel-efficient. What we would like to see is for automakers to start making all of their SUVs and all of their cars much more fuel-efficient," he said.

New technology promises to help save gasoline in the future. Hybrid engines that use both gasoline and electricity get 5 liters/100 km, but only a few small cars built by Honda and Toyota use the technology today. Automakers say hydrogen-based fuel-cell-powered engines will eliminate the need for gasoline, but those cars won't be on sale for about another 10 years.