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Detroit's Oil Riches

February 05, 2002

Toyota and Honda are already mass-producing gasoline/electric hybrid cars that get more than 50 miles per gallon. Plenty of conventional cars get more than 30 miles per gallon and could do even better with technology that already exists. Even a small boost in automobile gas mileage would dramatically reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. None of that has moved Congress to update national fuel economy standards, stuck for a decade at an average of 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 mpg for SUVs, minivans and other light trucks.

President Bush too is dodging the issue. In the budget proposal he released Monday he calls for an obvious stall: another study to decide whether fuel economy standards could perhaps be raised.

Apparently the only people in Washington with an ounce of guts concerning auto mileage are Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and their allies. They are writing a bill requiring manufacturers to improve car and light truck fuel economy by about 5% in their 2005 models. The expected economies would increase over time, saving 2.6 million barrels of oil daily by 2019--roughly the amount the United States brings in each day from the entire Persian Gulf.

In a letter to Congress last Friday, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta parroted Detroit auto makers' latest argument against raising fuel efficiency, claiming it would undermine passenger safety. Mineta said he was "deeply concerned" about a recent finding of the National Academy of Sciences that raising fuel economy standards could cause "many additional traffic injuries and fatalities."

In fact, the academy report concluded that "it is technically feasible and potentially economical to improve fuel economy without reducing vehicle weight or size and therefore without significantly affecting the safety of motor vehicle travel." True, people driving small cars are generally more vulnerable in collisions than people in big ones. By this logic, all Americans should be driving General Motors' new 6,400-pound, 13-mile-per-gallon Hummer model. Or why not go whole hog with a Bradley-class tank?

The alternative to such mad escalation is real energy independence. If Bush won't act, Congress should stiffen its backbone long enough to pass the Kerry-McCain plan. Then, as when every other safety and fuel economy law was passed, Detroit will quit whining and figure out how to build fast, sexy, practical cars that meet the standards.

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