August 23, 2005

U.S. Proposes Improving Gas Mileage for SUVs

ATLANTA -- U.S. auto regulators proposed on Tuesday improving gas mileage standards for sport utility vehicles, minivans and other light trucks in an effort to raise fuel efficiency and ease the pain of high gas prices.

The proposal by the Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would result in largely modest annual gains in fuel economy for vehicles in the light truck class between 2008 and 2011.

Light trucks would have separate benchmarks, preventing automakers from using smaller fuel efficient vehicles to offset the larger gas guzzlers, as they do now. Passenger cars and the largest sport utilities are not covered by the new standards.

"This plan is good news for American consumers because it will ensure that the vehicles that they will buy will get more miles to the gallon and ultimately save them money," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said in a news conference in Atlanta.

The federal government established new fleet or Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) targets two years ago, raising the requirement for light trucks to 22.2 miles per gallon (mpg) from 20.7 mpg during the 2005-07 model years.

Automakers currently must meet an average of 27.5 miles per gallon for all passenger cars.

Few specifics on the new mileage goals were released on Tuesday. Bush administration officials said they hoped to finalize the light truck mileage regulation next April after consulting manufacturers, consumers and environmentalists.

The new fuel standards would run through 2011.

Minivans would have to get 23.3 miles per gallon, while small SUVs would have to get up to 9 miles per gallon more than they do now, officials said. The proposal would save an estimated 10 billion gallons of gasoline over the period, Mineta said.

He added that it was in keeping with the administration's determination to lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

The centerpiece of the plan is a proposal to drop the formula for calculating fuel economy that averages performance over an automaker's entire light truck fleet, establishing in its place six categories requiring different fuel standards based on vehicle size.

Critics said the old system allowed manufacturers to offset gas guzzling vehicles with more fuel efficient smaller ones, indirectly encouraging them to sacrifice safety at the expense of meeting the mileage standards.

"This proposal removes that incentive for automakers to downsize vehicles," National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge said at the news conference.

"The old system saved fuel but resulted in more deaths on highways," Runge said.

Ford, General Motors and other automakers will have the option of using the old system or the new formula until 2011, when they must comply.

There were 8 million light trucks registered in the United States in 2004. Nearly 60 percent of all new vehicles purchased last year were light trucks, industry estimates show.

The average retail gasoline price rose 6.2 cents last week to a record $2.61 per gallon. It can cost more than $50 to fill up some large sport utilities.

(Additional reporting by John Crawley in Washington)