NRDC Report Finds Improved Fuel Efficiency Expands Consumer Choice; Ending Light Truck Loophole Adds Options for Safe, Clean Cars and SUVs

Group Responds to National Academy Study, Congressional Debate

WASHINGTON (July 30, 2001) - Improved fuel economy standards for cars, light trucks and SUVs would expand consumer choice by ensuring that automakers design all vehicles -- not just the best in class -- with efficiency in mind, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Manufacturer innovations in nearly every market segment show that safe, clean, efficient designs are readily achievable, the new paper says.

"No one chooses to buy a vehicle because it gets lousy mileage," said Roland Hwang, an NRDC senior policy analyst and author of the report. "Automakers themselves have demonstrated that it's possible to build cars and trucks that meet consumer needs for safety and performance without wasting gas. Stronger fuel economy rules level the playing field so people won't have to give up one for the other."

The report, "Clean Getaway: Toward Safe and Efficient Vehicles," comes as Congress prepares to debate fuel economy standards. It concludes the best and fastest solution for saving consumers money at the gas pump and cutting vehicle pollution is to immediately close a loophole that holds SUVs and light trucks to a standard that is 25 percent lower than passenger cars (20.7 mpg vs. 27.5 mpg).

"Cars and SUVs have converged on each other to the point where many even share the same mechanical platforms," said Hwang. "Eliminating the false legal distinction between them is the first step in boosting mileage performance."

The House of Representatives will consider an amendment by Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R, New York) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), eliminating the special treatment afforded SUVs and light trucks later this week in the debate over a national energy legislation.

The report also recommends increasing fuel economy standards for all passenger vehicles to 40 mpg by 2012, concluding that a single standard for cars, SUVs and light trucks maximizes flexibility for automakers while giving consumers greater choice. The 40-mpg standard would eliminate 1 billion tons of global warming pollution annually while saving consumers $3,000 to $5,000 over the life of a vehicle.

The report further recommends tax incentives for purchasers of fuel-efficient hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles, and says federal research and development efforts should favor gasoline engine technologies over diesels. A diesel engine produces 100 times more soot than a comparable gasoline engine under the same load. Diesel exhaust contains 40 toxic substances, including arsenic, dioxins, formaldehyde, lead and mercury.

Safe and Sound
"Clean Getaway" debunks common myths about the safety of fuel-efficient cars, stressing statistics that show gas guzzlers are often less safe than more efficient models, within and across vehicle classes. Safety issues involving the Ford Explorer are just one example. The report also notes that General Motors' Jimmy SUV rated only one star from federal safety authorities, while the Honda Accord earned five stars. A Jeep Cherokee rated only three stars in side-impact collisions; the Volkswagen Beetle, five.

"Design plays a key roll in vehicle safety," said Hwang. "The fact is that you are often better off overall in an efficient car than a fuel-thirsty truck." To the extent that weight plays a role, Hwang says reducing differences in mass between vehicles in a collision is the answer. And the best way to do that is with lighter, better-designed SUVs, he said.

We Have the Technology
Despite the fact that average fuel economy has been dropping for more than a decade, engines today are substantially more efficient than their predecessors. The problem is automakers have been focusing on increasing speed and weight. Horsepower has increased 79 percent since 1980, while 0-to-60 miles-per-hour times have dropped by a quarter -- despite an average 21 percent weight gain across the nation's vehicle fleet.

A variety of off-the-shelf technologies exist today to dramatically improve fuel efficiency, from camshaft and cylinder design to low-resistance tires and electronically controlled transmissions. Many are already in use. The report cites a growing number of models from SUVs to sports cars that get substantially better mileage than their competitors. Such vehicles embody the sort of innovation that will proliferate throughout the fleet once new standards are in place.

A Ford Explorer, for example, using the full litany of fuel saving technologies, would be nearly 50 percent more fuel-efficient and still accelerate more quickly than current designs, according to a report released last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

First Shot in Domestic Global Warming Fight
The fuel economy debate represents the first opportunity for Congress to officially weigh in on global warming issues after more than 170 countries adopted rules for implementing the Kyoto climate treaty last week in Bonn, Germany. The United States stood alone among major countries in rejecting the pact.

"Action on fuel economy will begin to fill the Bush administration's policy vacuum on global warming," said Dr. Daniel Lashof, science director for the NRDC Climate Center. "Legislation introduced this spring by Senators Jeffords (R-Vermont) and Lieberman (D-Conn.) on global warming pollution from power plants is the next key measure."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages
Clean Getaway: Toward Safe and Efficient Vehicles