Raising fuel economy a matter of public will


AMERICANS want more fuel-saving vehicles. True or false? They continue to buy more gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles, vans and trucks each year. Yet they consistently tell pollsters they want more conservation and fuel-efficiency.

Even the 50 percent jump in U.S. gasoline prices since 1998 hasn't dampened the preference for light trucks, although manufacturers are starting to focus on more fuel-efficient versions of these larger vehicles.

But despite the public's back-and-forth over this, political pressures are building to significantly increase fuel-economy rules to conserve petroleum and decrease global-warming exhausts. The auto industry won a key test this month as the House handily voted to keep a freeze on those 15-year-old economy standards. A tougher fight looms in the Senate.

Instead of higher fuel-economy averages, automakers promise soon to market a new generation of hybrid vehicles, powered by advanced diesel and electric battery, that can get 60 to 80 miles per gallon. The technology is largely proven, but the higher price -- at least $8,000 more than a conventional sedan -- will discourage buyers. To clear that barrier, manufacturers want Congress to enact hefty tax credits for consumers.

Yet there's no incentive for a nation hooked on larger vehicles to suddenly buy costlier, smaller hybrids simply because they are available. SUVs and their kind sell because they are bigger, affording a greater sense of safety and larger carrying capacity.

Without government mandates -- steeper economic hurdles for manufacturers, much higher gas taxes, or extra "luxury" taxes on guzzlers -- the hybrid-powered models will rust in the showrooms.

Since 1975, the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy program has helped raise average U.S. vehicle-per-gallon performance (84 percent for cars, 50 percent for trucks). But there has been a cost of more than 45,000 highway fatalities as a result of lighter cars built to meet the federal mandate.

Vehicle miles driven have also doubled in the quarter-century, raising total fuel consumption. U.S. dependence on foreign oil has climbed from 35 percent to 56 percent; motor vehicles use two-thirds of our oil supply.

Automaker penalties for exceeding the CAFE minimums are relatively minor, about $55 per mile per car sold. Quadruple the penalties, raise the fuel-economy requirement, tax consumers who demand big wasteful vehicles. (Bona fide business trucks could get a tax break.) That would force changes in manufacturer design and consumer buying habits -- if the nation really wants to curb its growing hunger for motor fuel.

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