Drivers stiffed - again

August 18, 2005

WANT TO feel worse about the gas guzzler that costs $75 a tank to fill and gets maybe 15 miles to the gallon?

It didn't have to be this way. Back in 1975, if Congress had included light trucks in fuel efficiency requirements, those trucks and the companion sport utility vehicles that most every family seems to need these days could be driven at least 66 percent farther between fill-ups. Detroit has the technology.

What's really depressing is that the Bush administration refuses to learn from this experience. Instead of seizing the moment of soaring prices and scarcer fuel to demand greater efficiency from future vehicles, the administration is lowering the bar, yielding to the same old claims from Detroit that its bottom line would suffer.

Thus, a president who laments that he can't do anything about gasoline prices won't do anything to assure that gasoline goes farther. Instead, he's trying to prop up an industry that would be much healthier if it had been forced to build vehicles more suited to today's world.

Maybe if pump prices rise to $4 a gallon by the end of the summer, when the revised and watered-down fuel standards are due, Mr. Bush will have a change of heart. But don't bet the Hummer on it.

American automobile industry apologists are fond of saying it only builds what the market demands, and most Americans don't want tiny little automobiles even if they get a zillion miles to the gallon. But people who want or need to drive an 8-cylinder, three-quarter-ton truck don't demand that it also burn gas at an astonishing rate. That's just the way Detroit makes them.

If carmakers took advantage of available technologies - in transmissions, high-tech engines and exterior design - they could produce full-size trucks that are substantially cleaner and more economical without sacrificing any of the power, according to research by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Yet instead of requiring such innovations, the administration has decided to extend the exemption from fuel-efficiency standards for trucks and SUVs, while also doing away with the fleetwide standards that currently apply to cars.

This is an energy policy that is - both literally and figuratively - out of gas.

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