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Study Urges Better Fuel Efficiency for SUVs

July 30, 2001

Auto manufacturers have the know-how to make sport-utility vehicles and light trucks significantly more fuel efficient over the 10 years, a National Academy of Sciences panel said on July 30, despite years of auto industry arguments against tighter restrictions on what has become the most popular category of newvehicles.Making vehicles more fuel efficient would add to their sticker prices, but that cost would be offset by savings on fuel over the lifetime of the vehicle, according to the panel. A smallSUV, for instance, could average 26 percent better mileage for an upfront cost of $818, while a large pickup truck could improve its mileage by 47 percent for $1,466. In both cases, the owner would save the same amount overthe 14-year life of the vehicle.But a majority of the 13-member panel added that those improvements could lead to more traffic fatalities if manufacturers simply opt to make vehicles smaller and lighter instead ofimplementing other technologies to achieve the fuel savings.The report, mandated by Congress, is a month late and has been the subject of intense political and industry debate. Its findings were being anticipated by the BushAdministration as a tool for framing national policy on reducing reliance on overseas oil. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said July 30 that the report "highlights promising technologies and reforms" that could increasefuel efficiency.The panel's report did not set specific fuel efficiency goals. It also did not settle any arguments among those lobbying for andagainst higher fuel efficiency standards for SUVs, according to congressional staffers.Both sides of the issue drew ammunition from the findings. Environmentalists said their longtime claims were validated by the panel's insistence that automakers know how to get better gas mileage out of SUVs.Classified as light trucks, SUVs and minivans currently are required by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to get an average of 20.7 miles per gallon, while passenger cars must average 27.5mpg. The panel suggested establishing fuel efficiency standards based on a vehicle's weight. It said that holding the two types of vehicles to different mileage standards "has been stretched well beyond the originalpurpose," which was to allow for differences between the way families drive cars and farmers or workers drive light trucks.
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