Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the nation's highway safety chief, wants to overhaul federal fuel economy laws, not only to save energy but also to promote safety. That's a good idea.
Runge, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told Congress that the overhaul could include National Academy of Sciences' recommendations, such as the introduction of weight classes into the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, program.
That would be difficult. But a system with weight classes at least promises better outcomes than the existing simple division of cars and trucks.
Now, cars are required to meet a higher standard (27.5 mpg), and trucks must meet a lower standard (20.7 mpg). So cars have been downsized. But many people switched to trucks. The results: Not enough fuel is saved, and there are increased dangers from the mismatches between trucks and the lighter, low-riding cars.
If properly devised, weight classes would have some advantages:
1. They could encourage vehicle manufacturers to make trucks less threatening to cars. The academy report said, for example, that if all vehicles under 4,000 pounds were put in classes with different fuel economy standards, and all vehicles over 4,000 had a single standard, manufacturers would try harder to make bigger ones more efficient and to lighten the biggest. Automakers might even add weight to some lighter vehicles.
2. They could make irrelevant the question of exactly what a light truck is. In a burst of creativity, the industry is building carlike trucks and trucklike cars. For example, the Chrysler PT Cruiser, clearly a car, drives through one loophole to qualify as a truck for CAFE purposes. The problem will only get worse.
Sure, a new system might have loopholes of its own. But the reasons why a rational system is needed to save fuel and reduce dependence on imported oil might be more obvious now than ever as U.S. troops gather on Iraq's borders.
And the threat of global warming looms large.
Some in the industry argue that the Bush administration's plan to boost the light-truck CAFE standard by 1.5 mpg during the 2005-07 model years will be challenge enough. But, clearly, more must be done.
Automakers don't like CAFE, but they have adapted to it.
Perhaps if they made an honest effort to rewrite the law so that it reduces fuel consumption and improves safety, they would find they still can serve consumer needs with a wide range of product offerings and keep profits coming.