WASHINGTON - Under a new proposal for overhauling federal fuel economy standards, each automaker would have its own goal for improving its product efficiency, based on the weights of the models it sells.
Currently, each company's cars must average at least 27.5 mpg and its light trucks must get a combined 20.7 mpg. Simply raising those numbers would discriminate against full-line manufacturers who sell many large vehicles, makers argue, especially the Big 3.
The proposal is a variation on fuel-saving efforts already adopted in Europe and Japan. It was presented last week to a National Academy of Sciences' panel of experts. They are charged with re-evaluating the 25-year-old federal program known as CAFE.
It was one of few new ideas to surface in two days of public hearings. Congress, attempting to end a long stalemate on the issue, has given the 12-member group until July 1 to complete its report. The group will address the effectiveness of CAFE and its impact on safety and the industry. It also will recommend possible changes.
'This would be one of the things we would look at,' said Paul Portney, the panel chairman, when asked about the weight-based proposal. But Portney, president of a research organization called Resources for the Future, also cautioned that 'it would be wrong to assume we are somehow headed down this track.'
Nevertheless, some panel members made it clear they won't consider dumping CAFE. One openly rebuked automakers for their two-and-a-half hour presentation that avoided suggestions for improving CAFE. Other panel members expressed disappointment privately.
The automakers said: CAFE has failed in its main goal of reducing energy consumption. Instead, it has distorted the market and forced car companies to offer products customers don't want. It is irreparably flawed. The long-term solution is to develop advanced technology vehicles that are more efficient but still offer consumers the performance and utility they demand.
Pick and choose
The new proposal for a weight-adjusted system came late in the hearings. Industry leaders have not examined it closely.
It was drafted by Steve Plotkin, a transportation analyst at Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Transportation Research.
By factoring in weight, he said, 'No company escapes the same challenge as another company simply because it is in another market sector.' Nor does a company that has been exceeding the standards get penalized, he said.
Under the proposal, a government agency would determine the average fuel economy of vehicles of similar weights. New targets would be set for categories of vehicles by applying a percentage increase, reflecting the desired fuel savings, such as 25 percent or 33 percent, over a period of years.
An automaker would determine its own fleet economy goal by averaging the targets for the kinds of models it sells. But the company would have flexibility in meeting that goal. In other words, it could produce more light vehicles or could make its heavy vehicles more efficient, or some combination of the two, Plotkin said.