Automakers, environmentalists disagree on government's fuel economy proposal

Automakers say they support the direction of a Bush administration proposal to revamp fuel economy rules for pickup trucks, minivans and some sport utility vehicles, which they consider a balanced approach that would improve fuel economy and provide more equity in the marketplace.

Environmentalists countered that the changes would do little to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil while giving the auto industry more autonomy to set fuel economy standards.

Industry members offered their first detailed review of proposed rules to push the auto industry to raise standards for light trucks beginning in 2008. All automakers would need to comply with the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) system by 2011.

Under the current system, auto manufacturers must maintain an average of 21 miles per gallon (5.5 kilometers per liter) for light trucks and will have to meet 22.2 mpg (5.8 kpl) for the 2007 model year. It represents an average of manufacturers' fleet of light trucks.

The new system would divide light trucks into six categories based on size, and automakers would need to meet targets based on their mix of vehicles. Smaller vehicles would have to get better gas mileage than larger trucks.

Passenger cars, which are required to maintain an average of 27.5 mpg (7.2 kpl), would not be covered by the changes.

Under the new system, in 2008 smaller vehicles such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Toyota RAV 4 would need to reach targets of 26.8 mpg (7.05 kpl) while large vehicles such as the Chevrolet Silverado would need to reach 20.4 mpg (6.8 kpl).

Automakers stressed the first major changes to the system since the 1980s would present significant challenges in implementing new technologies and factoring in the changes to their product plans.

U.S. automakers have complained the current system puts them at a disadvantage against foreign competitors because sales of large SUVs must be offset by the sale of smaller models to comply with fuel economy rules.

Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Karen Shaughnessy called the plan "more equitable than the current system" because it groups light trucks into six categories instead of one.

Honda Motor Co. said its main problem came from the timing of the changes. "In general it takes at least 10 years from the point of initial introduction to roll a technology out throughout a manufacturer's fleet," the company said in its comments to the government on the plan.

Environmentalists said the plan fell flat at a time when motorists are paying more at the petrol pump and energy security has reached the forefront of public policy.

President George W. Bush's administration has said the reforms will save more fuel than any previous rule-making in the history of the light-truck fuel economy program.

A final rule must be issued by April 2006 to take effect for the 2008 model year vehicles, reported AP. P.T.

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