Once again, bills are being introduced in Congress to force U.S. automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars - an effort that has been more or less successfully resisted in the past, including a threatened filibuster last year. This time, the Persian Gulf war and its emphasis on the need for energy independence, may help provide enough votes for passage.
Stiffer mileage standards are long overdue and represent a farsighted, common-sense step that the auto industry seems unable to take by itself. Detroit seems to prefer big, gas-guzzling cars and quick profits. Unfortunately, many buyers also cling to the idea that bigger is better and never mind mileage figures.This attitude ignores the fact that more fuel-efficient cars would cut driving expenses, reduce pollution and save an estimated 2.5 million barrels of oil per day by the end of the decade.
One measure, sponsored by 35 senators, would require a 20 percent increase in average fuel efficiency by 1996 and 40 percent for 2001-year models. That translates to 34 mpg by 1996 and 40 mpg by 2001 - a fleet average, not a requirement for every single car.
The current federal mileage requirement is 27.5 miles per gallon. The auto industry had to be dragged kicking and screaming for several years just to reach that figure and has successfully fought off attempts to raise it any higher.
Back in the early 1970s, most Americans still bought big cars. Gasoline was cheap and mileage was a minor consideration. But the Arab oil embargo was a shock to the national psyche and foreign automakers with their small cars, particularly the Japanese, used the crisis to drive a major wedge into the U.S. market and have since seized a commanding position.
Detroit fought hard to catch up but never really did. A big chunk of the American market is gone and thousands of jobs with it. Yet as soon as world oil markets stabilized and prices even began to fall in the 1980s, American automakers went back to bigger cars in pursuit of bigger profits. Yet the United States imports a bigger proportion of its oil than it did in the early 1970s.
Some members of Congress have gotten the message, even though it appears to elude the U.S. auto industry. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, says: "Unless we make American cars that are more fuel-efficient, then foreign companies are going to come in with cars that are fuel efficient and take American jobs."
Since the auto industry won't act in the interest of consumers - and its own long-term interest - then Congress should have no qualms over a little arm-twisting to get higher mileage standards.