Heavy pickups left out of new fuel economy standards

The U.S. government has instituted new fuel economy standards for light trucks and large sport utility vehicles that it says will save 10.7 billion gallons of fuel over the lifetime of those vehicles. The Department of Transportation exempted heavy pickups from regulation, with the justification they are used primarily in business and agricultural applications.

Automakers will be required to increase the average fuel economy of their light trucks 10 percent by 2011, the last year of the new standards, which will be phased in starting in 2008. Current model year light trucks have an average fuel economy of 21.6 miles per gallon, while, on average, 2011 models covered by the new rule will deliver about 24 mpg.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents all major auto makers except Honda, released a statement saying the higher fuel economy standards will be a challenge, even with all the new fuel-efficient technologies already on the market. Transportation Department officials estimate the rule will cost manufacturers $6.7 billion and will add about $200 to the cost of a new vehicle.

The rule covers SUVs weighing up to 10,000 pounds, including the Hummer H2 and Chevrolet Suburban; the current rule affects only those up to 8,500 pounds. The Transportation Department also changed the way the standard applies. The new fuel economy rules will be based on vehicles’ footprints rather than on the average fuel economy of manufacturers’ fleets. Critics of the current rules say they allow companies that build only small SUVs and pickups to make vehicles that aren’t fuel efficient for their size because the automakers’ fleet averages are acceptable.

“The new standards represent the most ambitious fuel economy goals for light trucks ever developed in the [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] program’s 27-year history,” said Norman Mineta, secretary of the Transportation Department. “And more importantly, they close loopholes that have long plagued the current system.”

Mineta said the new rules will save 2 billion more gallons of fuel than the department’s orginal proposal released in August. The final rule is more stringent because it includes larger SUVs and has a higher miles-per-gallon target. SUVs that weigh between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds will be covered by the rule for the first time in 2011, saving 250 million gallons of gas a year, according to Mineta.

“We took a good, close look at automakers’ plans, examined new technology that is in use or under development – like hybrids and the latest generation of diesel-burning engines – and decided that we could ask more of the manufacturers than we proposed last August,” Mineta said.

Conservation advocates and environmentalists said they were disappointed the new standards don’t cover large pickup trucks, which constitute 80 percent of the 8,500- to 10,000-pound weight category. According to the Sierra Club, the rule will save less than two weeks worth of oil at current consumption levels over the next four years. “President Bush says America is addicted to oil, but this new standard is like telling a two-pack-a-day smoker to cut out one cigarette,” said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming program.

Jim Kliesch, a research associate with the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, agrees. “Bringing in the SUVs is a small step in the right direction,” Kliesch said. “But it’s difficult to praise the rule when four out of five of these vehicles are still exempt from any fuel economy requirement.”