Plentiful oil? A V-8, anyone?

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Four years after the auto industry started trembling at the real prospect of a global fuel shortage, painful pump prices and consumers clamoring for vehicles that can deliver 50 mpg, this news arrives from the International Energy Agency in France: There’s way more oil under America than we realized.

Oops.

The IEA, a leading source for long-range energy resource forecasting, reckons that by 2020 -- thanks to the controversial new practice of drilling for oil with water pressure -- the United States will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest oil producer.

Who knew?

I’d like to spend the next few paragraphs assuring automakers and technology firms that all that toiling of the past few years to remake themselves as environmentally conscientious, green-footed producers of highly fuel-efficient vehicles was not for nothing.

I would probably write that “doing the right thing is always the right thing.” That consumers reward technological innovation. That higher fuel economy should be a constant goal no matter what a gallon of gasoline costs. That car buyers will continue asking for fuel-efficient transportation, regardless of what happens on the world oil market.

But seriously.

Does anyone really believe that American consumers will pass up the chance to drive V-8s and big trucks and roomy multipassenger vehicles if they are confident that gasoline will remain abundant and pump prices stable for the next decade?

The timing couldn’t be more ironic. In just the past few months, showrooms have begun to receive the first full results of the industry’s makeover, triggered in large part by the fuel shock of 2008, encouraged by the worldwide wave of consumer environmental awareness and threatened by tough new corporate average fuel economy requirements.

Sedans are battling to claim 36, 37, 38 and 40 mpg. Cars are rolling out with stop-start technology, advanced transmissions and lean direct-injection engines. Tire makers are offering low-rolling-resistance tires and Ford customers are standing in line to buy F-150s with six-cylinder engines.

Momentum has shifted to a new era of fuel conservation and a market defined by high consumer expectations.

So what happens now, when U.S. oil fields begin flooding the market with all the gasoline it wants? Do we return to the carefree days of the cheap-gas 1950s? Will automakers relax their efforts? Will consumers chuckle over how unnecessarily worried they all were back in 2012? Will the industry lobby the EPA to cut everybody some slack on those newly drafted CAFE regulations? Will all this new technological progress get back-burnered and carted off into dark warehouses?

The auto industry has been feverishly figuring out how to remake itself at this fuel-economy crossroads.

If the IEA’s oil forecast proves correct and the pressure is off, the bigger challenge may be for automakers to figure out which way to go when there’s no longer a gun pointed at their heads.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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