The fuel economy debate in the United States has become a meaningless ritual, judging by the defeat two weeks ago of a proposal to raise standards for corporate average fuel economy.
The proposal would have raised CAFE to 40 mpg by 2015, an increase of 45 percent for cars and even more for trucks. Senators who favored the proposal knew it would be defeated overwhelmingly. No one gained in that fruitless exercise.
Environmentalists and automakers must rethink the situation and find common ground.
The Big 3 lobby against big CAFE increases. It's hard to blame them. Squeezed by relentless competition from overseas companies, they want to protect their truck turf. Ditto the UAW, whose members earn good wages making those trucks.
But it's a shortsighted strategy. The Big 3 risk being perceived as dinosaurs, and that would be bad for business.
Honda and Toyota, on the other hand, have cleverly built earth-friendly public images. For example, they rushed to market gasoline-electric hybrid cars, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight and Civic Hybrid.
Honda and Toyota make little or no money on the cars, but the cars have done wonders for the companies' reputations. Honda and Toyota are perceived as more technologically advanced and earth friendly than the Big 3, even though they are eagerly adding low-mileage truck models.
General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and the Chrysler group are battling for the hearts and minds of consumers on all fronts. They can't afford to be painted into a corner as enemies of the environment.
What's needed in Washington is real dialogue. Both sides are more intent on making their political points than on finding common ground. Environmentalists are not going to get a 45 percent increase in CAFE standards. But the Big 3 are taking risks by opposing all but token increases.
The light-truck standard, which has received the most criticism, has been constant since 1996 at 20.7 mpg. This year the Bush administration has raised it modestly to 22.2 mpg by the 2007 model year. The car standard, unchanged since 1989, is 27.5 mpg.
In the meantime, global warming and prodding from environmentalists aren't going away. So achieving common ground on higher CAFE is necessary. Proven technology, such as gasoline-electric powertrains, is available to reduce fuel consumption significantly.
With some political finesse and technology, the Big 3 could get on the right side of the CAFE debate.