WASHINGTON -- Reacting to public uproar over gasoline prices, the Bush administration took steps Thursday to change passenger car fuel economy standards for the first time in nearly 20 years.
The administration said it wants to make the same kinds of changes in the standards for cars that it made for light trucks in late March. Those changes included for the first time setting different fuel economy targets for vehicles of different sizes and raising the overall fuel-saving requirements for manufacturers by about 10 percent over the 2008-11 model years.
The earliest that the changes for cars could take effect would be the 2009 model year. Cars have been required to average 27.5 mpg since 1990. Federal law in 1975 established the corporate average fuel economy program, or CAFE, and the industry has wrestled with it ever since.
The unusual administration move was part of a seeming panic among politicians to demonstrate to consumers -- and voters -- that they are doing something about high gasoline prices.
The fuel economy plan for cars was spelled out for reporters in a hastily called telephone news conference late Thursday.
The officials said they could speak only if they were not identified -- apparently so they would not upstage remarks on the subject made earlier by President Bush.
The plan for cars would unfold in a series of steps.
First, Congress would have to enact a law giving the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration authority to set something other than a single standard for cars.
Then the agency would need to gather product information from automakers, publish a notice of rule-making and accept comments on the proposal.
Finally, automakers would have to be given at least 18 months lead time before any changes would take effect.
The officials who spoke Thursday said the administration was trying to take advantage of the surge in congressional interest in energy issues to get the needed legislation enacted.
The point of setting different fuel economy targets for vehicles of different sizes is to discourage automakers from downsizing models to comply, thereby making vehicles less safe. The administration's reforms set tougher targets for smaller vehicles. Size is determined by the area bounded by the four wheels.
Some critics of the new truck standards warn, however, that automakers may decide to make some vehicles larger so that they face easier targets -- thereby negating hoped-for fuel savings.
Light trucks are expected to average about 24 mpg by 2011.
The standard for 2006 is 21.6 mpg.
You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at [email protected]