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New mileage standards proposed for light trucks get mixed reviews

WASHINGTON—Caught between consumer complaints about skyrocketing gas prices and a troubled U.S. auto industry, the Bush administration on Tuesday proposed an ever-so-slight increase in gas mileage standards for minivans, SUVs, pick-ups and other light trucks by 2011.

The new standards would increase average mileage for light trucks—which are more than half of American vehicle sales—from 21 mpg now to about 24 mpg when the 2011 model year begins five years from now.

But because the new standard divides light trucks into six size categories instead of one as it is now, 47 percent of the new light trucks in 2011 can average 23.3 mpg or less. The largest one-quarter of the light trucks won't have to get more than 21.7 mpg. And the biggest vehicles, the H-2 Hummers and the like, don't even count in the proposal.

As a result, don't expect big savings at the pump.

The administration said its proposal would conserve about one month's consumption of gas—10 billion gallons—spread out over the 15-year lifespan of 35 million new minivans, SUVs and pick-up trucks.

"It's not a huge tightening of standards, but it's a small tightening of standards," said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institution of Transportation Studies at University of California at Davis. "The question is: Is small good enough or not?"

And if gas prices keep soaring and consumers' love affair with big gas-guzzlers were to wane as Japanese carmakers produce more hybrids, market forces may do more to increase fuel economy than Tuesday's proposal, experts said.

The standards received mixed reviews.

Environmental groups say the new proposal is nowhere near good enough. Automakers say requiring a 14 percent increase in gas mileage is going to be tough to meet.

"It's a big jump," said Monica Sakala of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "Certainly these higher standards will be a challenge for the industry."

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta hailed the rule as "good news for American consumers because it will ensure the vehicles they buy get more miles to the gallon, requiring fewer stops at the gas station and ultimately saving them money at the pump."

The proposed rule relies heavily on a 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences. But the chairman of the study panel said the fuel efficiency standards "should have been pushed farther."

"My druthers and those of the members of the National Academy committee was that you could get bigger fuel economy than this," said panel chairman Paul Portney, dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. "It's a smaller step than I would like, but it's a step in the right direction."

Department of Transportation officials tried to walk the fine line of touting gas savings in public statements, while acknowledging deep in its 169-page proposed rule that it was protecting Detroit from having to make tough and expensive changes.

U.S. automakers' fragile finances were key in the rules. They note that the biggest light-truck manufacturers, General Motors and Ford, "have reported serious financial difficulties" and at one point described GM as "the least capable manufacturer."

Instead of separating cars from light trucks in fuel economy standards by using the traditional vehicle weight, the new rules would set six categories and standards based on a truck's "footprint"—a measurement of the length and wheelbase.

So the smallest SUVs, such as the Subaru Forester, would have to average 28.4 mpg by 2011. Midsize SUVs, such as the Ford Escape, would have to get 27 mpg. The largest category—small pick-ups and larger SUVs, such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee—would have to average 24.5 mpg. Minivans and midsize pick-ups, such as the Honda Odyssey, would have to average 23.3 mpg. Large SUVs, such as the Toyota Tundra, would have to average 21.7 mpg. And the largest in the group, such as the GM Silverado, would have to get only 21.2 mpg.

Vehicles weighing more than 8,500 pounds—GM's Hummers and Ford's Excursion—aren't covered by this regulation.

Sperling said the new rule would encourage manufacturers to bulk up their trucks so they get into a bigger category and don't have to get as good mileage as they would in a smaller category.

In the proposed rules, the Department of Transportation calculated that better gas mileage would pay off for new trucks within 47 months. But that was based on gas between $1.51 and $1.58 per gallon. The national average for gas is more than a dollar higher now. The transportation figure was based on the Energy Department's long-term projections.

Still, Shannon Heyck-Williams of the National Environmental Trust said the $1.58 gas price "tells me that they're not interested in what's really hurting consumers at the pump. If consumers are paying three bucks a gallon, they are not responding to their needs. What planet are they on? That would be great if we had $1.58 gasoline."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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