WASHINGTON - Year after year, industry critics said automakers could build more fuel-efficient trucks. Automakers said they could not without making their trucks less appealing, less safe and less useful.
And lawmakers listened. Since 1995, they have frozen the federal corperate average fuel economy standards.
But in the past two weeks, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors have volunteered to cut fuel consumption in some sport-utilities and pickups.
Proponents of higher fuel-economy standards say the automakers' statements give them fresh ammunition to press for higher CAFE.
'This means a fundamental change in the terms of the CAFE debate,' said Jason Mark, transportation analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that lobbies for higher standards.
KEEP THE FREEZE?
He said the announcements show that manufacturers know how to build more economical vehicles and that consumers care about fuel efficiency, disproving two key arguments used by CAFE opponents in Congress.
Those points have not been missed on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., a top Senate proponent of higher CAFE standards, said in the wake of Ford's announcement, 'I've long said the industry has the existing technology to allow cars to go further on a gallon of gas and save consumers money at the gas pump.'
Even before the Ford and GM announcements, Gorton and other freeze opponents appeared to be gaining ground.
In 1999 they got 40 votes in the Senate to end the freeze, which keeps the standards at 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 for trucks.
They were preparing for another Senate vote this year when they and the industry's allies agreed instead to seek a National Academy of Sciences study of CAFE.
Congress is still considering the measure to keep the freeze for another year while the study is conducted. Lobbyists on both sides of the issue do not expect the bill to be derailed by the GM and Ford announcements, but they are less certain than before.
Jo Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said member companies are concerned about timing. They would have preferred to have the CAFE freeze enacted for another year before facing fresh questions about the voluntary steps planned by some.
Nevertheless, she said the alliance - Ford, GM and 11 of their competitors - is ready to make the case that innovation and competition, not regulation, are the ways to produce more efficient vehicles.
Even a competitor came to Ford's defense in the wake of its promise to raise the fuel economy of its sport-utility fleet by 25 percent in the next five years. Robert Liberatore, DaimlerChrysler senior vice president for external affairs and public policy, said, 'I can't see how people wouldn't see that as a constructive gesture, and why it would invite more regulations. It shouldn't.'
But, he added: 'Washington works in strange ways. Anything's possible.'
NO MORE MANDATES
Ford officials were sensitive to the fact that their promise to cut average sport-utility fuel consumption would stir the CAFE debate.
They briefed lawmakers who have been industry supporters about the plan before it was unveiled by Ford CEO Jac Nasser July 27.
Janet Mullins Grissom, Ford vice president for Washington_affairs, said the lawmakers saw Ford's plan as a validation of the stand they have taken on CAFE.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., in a brief interview, agreed: 'It shows that they can do the right thing without necessarily having to look at a whole number of government mandates.'
Citing the benefits of joint government-industry research into vehicle technology, Upton added, 'It shows that the system that's in place is in fact working. And I'm convinced that they'll do better even in the future.'