New Fuel-Economy Bill Draws Fire from Carmakers

By Paul A. Eisenstein, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 12, 1991 | Go to article overview

New Fuel-Economy Bill Draws Fire from Carmakers


Paul A. Eisenstein, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IT'S back. And it's sending shivers through Detroit's executive offices.

Not a horror film, not a cold wave, not even a new assault by the Japanese, but the latest version of the Bryan bill. Sponsored by Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada, the measure would boost the fuel economy of the average American car to 40 miles per gallon (m.p.g.) within a decade. The bill nearly cleared the Senate last year. Now, sponsors say, the war in the Middle East is enough to garner the crucial swing votes needed to push it through.

"We're back, and this time we intend to win," Senator Bryan said recently. "We're going to fast-track it."

Formally known as the "Motor Vehicle Fuel Efficiency Act of 1991," the measure would require each carmaker to increase the fuel economy of its average passenger car 20 percent by 1996 and 40 percent by 2001. The effect would be a national average of 34 m.p.g. by 1996 and 40 m.p.g. by 2001. Currently, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) is set at 27.5 m.p.g.

The measure would also require manufacturers to improve the fuel economy of their minivans, pickups, and other light trucks.

Not surprisingly, the Bryan bill drew immediate fire from Detroit. Tom Hanna, president of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association (MVMA) - the lobbying arm of the Big Three - charged the proposal is "unachievable with any known technology."

Bryan's backers counter that they've heard the criticism before. Way back in the 1970s, when cars were getting barely 10 miles a gallon, the industry said it couldn't meet the original CAFE goals. Today, however, the typical passenger car gets at least 27.5 m.p.g., the current CAFE standard.

Forty miles per gallon is doable, says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. But not easily, and certainly not cheaply. "The easier-to-play cards are already out of the deck," Mr. Cole says.

Just by improving tires and making cars more aerodynamic, the Big Three boosted fuel economy three or four m.p.g. But future increases will take billions of dollars of investment in new engines, transmissions, and lightweight materials like plastics and composites, Cole cautions.

And it is almost certain that to meet the 40 mile-a-gallon standard, tomorrow's cars will have to be significantly downsized. …

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