Maybe it's $3 per gallon gasoline. Or global warming. Or Democrats in charge of Congress. Or good advice from allies. Most likely, the decision by automakers to support a modest increase in fuel efficiency standards for the first time can be attributed to all of the above.
It's a defensive strategy aimed at heading off a more ambitious proposal, which is the centerpiece of an energy bill that Senate leaders hope will win approval in that chamber by the end of the month. One of the tactic's targets is Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, who has been sympathetic to industry warnings that tougher fuel standards would cost jobs.
But the Broening Highway General Motors plant she was trying to save closed anyway, and GM's new entry in Maryland makes hybrid transmissions for light trucks. Senator Mikulski should now extend her protective instincts to the many thousands of Marylanders trying to make ends meet with vehicles that get worse gas mileage than those of 1987, when cheap gas effectively relieved pressure for improvement.
The proposed increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards included in the bill before the Senate has already been weakened by compromise. It calls for a minimum fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020 - up from the current requirement of an average of 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.2 mpg for light trucks - and 4 percent annual increases thereafter.
A spokesman for the automobile manufacturers called those targets "wildly extreme" and "unattainable." A trade group including the Big Three U.S. carmakers, global giant Toyota and five other companies is backing an alternative sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, that would lower the mileage targets, allow longer time to reach them and maintain a distinction between cars and light trucks that favors the gas hogs. Cars would be required to achieve 36 miles per gallon by 2022 and light trucks would have to meet a minimum of 30 mpg by 2025.
There seems little reason, though, to ease the regulatory challenge to carmakers. Scientists contend the technology already exists to meet a fleetwide average of 40 miles per gallon by 2010.
Back in the days of cheap gas, many Americans were more interested in size, power and flash than in fuel economy, and certainly they gave little thought to how auto emissions contribute to global warming. But those days are over. If carmakers don't acknowledge that, the Democratic-led Congress should make sure they get the message.