FUEL ECONOMY HIT
The average fuel economy of the nation's cars and trucks fell to its lowest level in 22 years in the 2002 model year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The technological and engineering leaps of the last two decades have been poured into everything but fuel economy, according to the agency's statistics. Since 1981, the average vehicle has 93 percent more horsepower and is 29 percent faster in going from 0 to 60 miles an hour. It is also 24 percent heavier, reflecting surging sales of sport utility vehicles.
But over the same period, fuel economy has stagnated, contributing heavily to the nation's rising oil consumption. Cars and light trucks S.U.V.'s, pickups and minivans account for about 40 percent of the nation's oil consumption and a fifth of its carbon dioxide emissions, which many scientists see as the leading contributor to global warming.
Environmentalists, frustrated by years of legislative defeats and a recent retreat by the Ford Motor Company on a pledge that it would improve the fuel economy of its S.U.V.'s, were further exasperated by the report.
"Without being forced to improve fuel economy by the government, the auto industry doesn't do it," said Daniel Becker, the top global warming expert for the Sierra Club. "Congress has to require energy savings in the energy bill that comes to the floor next week or the auto industry will continue to go in reverse."
The report also said that fuel economy could have improved 33 percent since 1981 if performance and weight of vehicles had been held constant.
But Gloria J. Bergquist, the vice president for communications at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the industry's chief political lobbying group, said the industry could not force consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles.
"We have 30 models that get over 30 miles per gallon, but the top 10 most fuel-efficient vehicles are less than 2 percent of sales," she said. "I would call this report a consumer sales report. It shows what consumers are buying."
In his first speech today as the new chairman of General Motors, Rick Wagoner, who will continue to serve as chief executive, said "the only solution to this tough dilemma of improving fuel economy and reducing emissions in the intensely price-competitive and very low-cost-energy environment here in the U.S. is through technology."
He singled out the potential of hydrogen-powered fuel cells, a clean energy source, which have been a favorite technology of the Bush administration. But many analysts say fuel-cell cars are years, if not decades, away from mass production.
The E.P.A. report came several months later than usual and was somewhat controversial because the agency changed its normal reporting procedures. Instead of reporting only fuel economy changes for the 2002 model year, weighted for sales, the agency also included results for the 2003 model year based on the industry's own sales projections from last September.
By that reckoning, average fuel economy will show its first improvement in more than two decades in the 2003 model year. But the agency said there was a margin for error large enough to swing the results to a loss. And sales trends this year have also not appeared to favor energy conservation.
Light trucks continue to gobble up more of the market than more fuel-efficient passenger cars. Sales of the biggest S.U.V.'s, like the Lincoln Navigator and the Chevrolet Suburban, rebounded from a sluggish first quarter with a strong showing last month.
Further worsening fuel economy statistics are the aggressive moves by Asian automakers into S.U.V.'s of all sizes, with the next battleground being drawn over the last stronghold of Detroit, the pickup truck.
In the 2002 model year, fuel economy averaged 20.4 miles a gallon, the lowest since the fleet averaged 19.2 miles a gallon in 1980. Fuel economy peaked at 22.1 miles a gallon in 1988 but has mostly fallen since.
The agency predicts fuel economy will rise to 20.8 miles a gallon in the 2003 model year, with a 0.5 mile a gallon margin for error. Cars are expected to average 24.8 miles a gallon, compared with 19.6 for minivans, 17.8 for S.U.V.'s and 16.8 for pickups.
David Friedman, a senior policy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the report's new methodology "raises a lot of questions."
"I'm very skeptical of their use of the 2003 model year information," he said, adding that "it's difficult to come to any conclusions about any model year before the model year is over."
Conversations with people at the environmental agency who were briefed on the decision to offer 2003 figures indicated that it was not politically motivated but was done in part to prevent news organizations from doing their own projections.
Donald Zinger, the assistant director of the E.P.A.'s office of transportation and air quality, said "some people tried to do it themselves and got all messed up and came out with numbers that were inaccurate."
Written by: New York Times
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