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Trust Automakers to Increase Fuel Economy

Did you know that today’s cars get an average of 28 miles per gallon, while in 1974 they averaged only 13?

That’s right — fuel economy has more than doubled in the past generation. Yet some say a federal mandate is necessary to increase fuel economy. But the facts, as they often do, tell a different story.

We don’t need new government decrees to increase fuel economy. Fuel efficiency will continue to increase because it’s in every

automaker’s best interests to make sure that it does. Automakers are fiercely competitive with one another, each trying to develop even cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars and light trucks than their rivals. Advanced technology, which increases fuel efficiency while maintaining consumer standards for comfort, safety and utility, will lead to additional advances in the future.

Remember the old subcompact you drove a generation ago to grapple with an era of seemingly endless gas lines? Today’s mid-size sport utility vehicles get better mileage than subcompact cars from the 1970s. In fact, light trucks (pickup trucks, SUVs, minivans and vans) outsell passenger cars in every state.

Yet some feel that Congress must get involved in increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards with a particular focus on SUVs. We’ve debated CAFE many times before, and this year will be no different. Fortunately, there are a number of positive developments to talk about, but first, let’s review the votes that Congress has taken.

The House and Senate have recognized the negative impact of trying to set, in effect, a political number for fuel economy levels. That’s why Congressional efforts to increase CAFE failed in 2001, 2002 and 2003 by an overwhelming margin.

It’s not often that the U.S Chamber of Commerce, UAW, American Farm Bureau, National Association of Manufacturers and the AFL-CIO take the same position on a public policy issue. But when it comes to CAFE, all of these groups and many others agree: Congress should not set CAFE standards that will put jobs at risk and give Americans fewer choices for vehicles.

Everyone has a responsibility to practice conscientious stewardship over the environment, and automakers are doing their part by developing a new generation of advanced technology vehicles that will be cleaner and more fuel-efficient without sacrificing features that consumers demand. Automakers already offer hybrid electric, alternative fuel and advanced diesel vehicles that get superior gas mileage. More are coming, including hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines and fuel cells.

Consumer tax incentives will also help. Federal tax credits applied to the purchase of advanced technology vehicles will put more of them on the road. Because cutting-edge technologies frequently have higher incremental costs than conventionally powered vehicles, we need to pass consumer tax credits to achieve mass-market penetration of these efficient machines.

But we also need to keep in mind the negative consequences of higher federal fuel economy mandates. Every peer-reviewed scientific study published in the past two decades (including the National Academy of Sciences’ CAFE study of 2001) has documented that the downweighting of the vehicle fleet has had an adverse impact on safety. We can never repeal the laws of physics. If you’re going to be in a crash, you want as much “crush space,” or crumple zone, as possible protecting you from a tree, telephone pole, bridge abutment, embankment or another vehicle.

Let’s also remember the auto industry’s contributions to the nation’s economy. Fully one in 10 American jobs are tied to the automobile industry. Whether it’s in a production plant in our home state of Michigan, or in a research and development laboratory in California, or in a textile producer in the Carolinas, or in an airbag manufacturing plant in Arizona, no other single manufacturing industry produces more employment than the auto industry.

Finally, it’s important to point out that setting “maximum feasible” fuel economy levels is a highly complex issue, and the experts at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are the best folks to do it. At NHTSA, they will base future fuel economy levels on data that takes into account the effects of fuel economy on jobs, the economy, safety and consumer choice.

Indeed, NHTSA has just recently raised the fuel economy requirements for light trucks. The new level, to 22.2 miles per gallon by model year 2007, represents the highest percentage increase in fuel economy mandates in 20 years.

We all want a sound and balanced energy policy. We all want higher fuel economy, especially in light of rising gas prices. We believe we are driving in the right direction because automakers and autoworkers are working hard to bring fuel-efficient, cutting-edge technologies to the market. Many are in dealer showrooms today, and more are coming. Congress shouldn’t put up roadblocks. Advanced technology for the motor vehicle fleet will ensure progress toward better fuel economy in the years ahead and still give American consumers the safety, performance and other features they demand.

Michigan Reps. Dale Kildee (D) and Fred Upton (R) co-chair the Congressional Auto Caucus.

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