No offramps

May 11, 2007

Have no fear for the resilience of the automotive industry. It has confronted the ominously obvious and said: Poppycock.

Gas prices are soaring again toward the high discomfort zone. Detroit's reliance on energy hogs hurt sales enough to drop longtime global leader General Motors to second place behind more fuel-efficient Toyota. Wasting fossil fuel is now viewed as a threat to national security as well as environmental health.

And the technology to substantially ease the problem lies moldering on the shelf.

Yet industry lobbyists have persuaded a Senate committee to include a loophole in legislation raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks that is so large, it's been appropriately dubbed an "offramp."

Credit is due to the bipartisan effort that marks the first time in more than a dozen years that an increase in the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards has made it out of a Senate committee for debate by the full chamber, which is expected to occur next month. But if the offramp isn't blocked before the final legislation is enacted, it will hardly be worth the trouble.

For nearly two decades, environmentalists have been trying to raise the minimum standards for fuel efficiency first set in 1975 and never altered. In recent years, their goal has been a fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon, up from the current 24.5 - a target easily within reach, according to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study. The measure unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last week calls for reaching the 35 mpg average by 2020.

But the legislation was amended shortly before the vote to include the offramp: The 35 mpg requirement would not apply if the secretary of transportation determines it is not "cost-effective."

The gaping loophole responds directly to complaints by the industry (not including Toyota) that the standard cannot be met without grievous harm to its bottom line: The cost of vehicles will soar, popular SUVs and heavy-duty trucks won't be available, and profits will fall - so that taxpayers might just have to assume its pension obligations. OK, so who's talking poppycock here?

Detroit would be much healthier now if it had followed the model of Toyota and other foreign automakers, whose customers have long been more sensitive than Americans to keeping size and operating costs at a minimum.

But that didn't happen. Now it's up to Congress to force U.S. carmakers to produce vehicles better suited to these times - for the industry's own sake and because the nation has larger issues at stake.

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