WASHINGTON - Even as Congress prepares to vote this week on reducing fuel use by light trucks, some automakers are falling behind in efforts to comply with existing federal fuel-economy standards, which have remained largely unchanged for a decade.
Newly disclosed federal records show that DaimlerChrysler last year paid a penalty of more than $8 million because its 1999 model year imported cars - Mercedes-Benz models - fell short of the federal standard of 27.5 mpg for cars. The fine was up from about $1.9 million paid for the 1998 model year.
The data suggest that DaimlerChrysler will owe a still higher penalty for its 2000 imported cars because its fuel-economy average was even farther below the standard. The fine will approach $20 million, according to Automotive News calculations.
The trend is occurring despite a company policy to end noncompliance with federal corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards.
Better scores ahead
'The policy isn't changing,' said Robert Liberatore, senior vice president of DaimlerChrysler. But the numbers will start improving in the 2001 model year, he said, in part because Mitsubishi cars will be counted in the DaimlerChrysler average.
Elsewhere, records show that General Motors in 2000 won federal approval of its plan to make up for missing the light-truck standard in the 1997 model year. The plan included a commitment to raise the average fuel economy of the company's light trucks by a full 1.0 mpg in 2000. But it went up just 0.6 mpg, according to preliminary figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which manages CAFE.
Despite that, GM had sufficient credits to get the 1997 number into compliance without paying CAFE fines, company spokesman Greg Martin said.
Federal law allows companies to move CAFE credits back or forward three model years.
'It absolutely, positively will not happen. (We) never have paid them, (and we) never will. It's chiseled in stone,' Martin said.
By the numbers
The penalty for noncompliance is $5.50 for each tenth of 1 mpg by which the standard is missed, multiplied by the number of vehicles sold.
DaimlerChrysler's imported cars, for example, averaged 26.5 mpg in 1999, or 10 tenths below the standard. That means a $55 penalty per vehicle. More than 145,000 were sold. That explains the $8.1 million penalty.
BMW of North America Inc. paid even more for the 1999 model year, about $13 million, according to NHTSA's latest annual CAFE report. Porsche Cars North America Inc. paid $4.9 million.
Companies that sell imported luxury vehicles in the United States have paid CAFE fines year after year like a routine cost of business. Daimler-Benz AG did the same before it acquired Chrysler Corp. in 1998. Now DaimlerChrysler intends to stop.
Meanwhile, Liberatore said, automakers and their allies are turning up the pressure to keep the House of Representatives from adding tougher fuel economy provisions to an energy bill lawmakers will consider this week.
Dealers, suppliers and auto workers are joining in the lobbying, industry officials said.
The bill contains a provision to require a cut in light-truck fuel consumption of five billion gallons in the 2004-2010 period. Competing interest groups have estimated the reduction would translate into a 1 mpg to 3 mpg increase in truck CAFE, currently set at 20.7 mpg.