The original bill would increase the fleet average for cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, plus 4 percent increases each year in the decade after that.
But GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Toyota say that standard will be impossible to meet. So a coalition of senators from auto-manufacturing states has made a counterproposal. They would separate the standards for passenger cars from light trucks. Cars would have to reach 35 mpg by 2022. Pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles would have to get 30 mpg by 2025.
The current standard for cars is 27.5 mpg; for small trucks it is 22.2. Because the standard has remained largely unchanged for so long, American fleets are actually less efficient now than they were in the late 1980s, despite advances in technology.
The motorheads argue that it is unfair to lump cars together with the heavier light trucks, and that doing so will essentially force the big vehicles favored by young families off the market, or at least price them out of the market. The head of Chrysler claims that even the easier standards that the automakers support will add $11.2 billion to his company's costs in the first five years.
We might be more sympathetic to Detroit's argument if it had not been complicit in creating a huge market for SUVs, not because the public demanded them but because gasoline was cheap and the profit margin on these vehicles is much higher than it is for compact cars. Detroit made its bed, and now that gasoline prices are burning through people's wallets, Detroit is whining about having to lie down in it.
Meanwhile, Toyota is eating everyone else's lunch with its 55-mpg Prius hybrid. Of course, Toyota also is building a huge new, gas-guzzling pickup, as well as monster SUVs, which explains why it has thrown in with Detroit on this bill.
But here's the real bottom line: The national security of the United States demands that Americans reduce their dependence on oil, and fuel efficiency is one way to get there. The technology exists, so there's no good reason to relax the standards proposed in the original bill.