US mpg levels remain fixed until 2004 despite 20 year low for US fuel efficiency

A major proportion of new vehicles in the US will not be subject to tighter fuel efficiencies until at least 2005 despite a recent lifting of a freeze on the review of fuel economy restrictions. Officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), announced on January 18 that the current CAFE - corporate average fuel economy standard, set in 1996, would continue for ‘light trucks’ design models from 2004.

Environmentalists had been pressing for an increase of the current 20.7 miles per gallon (mpg) for the ‘light truck’ group of vehicles, as it now accounts for around half of new vehicles used in the US, following the wide popularity of sports utility vehicles and other small trucks as family vehicles.

The increasing dominance of the lower CAFE standard for light trucks is reported to have pushed down average fuel efficiency of all US passenger vehicles to its lowest level – 24 mpg, since 1980 (see related story). When CAFE standards were first introduced the relatively low numbers of light trucks, in relation to cars, led to higher fuel efficiencies being set for cars at the current 27.5 mpg, while some truck standards were as low as 15.8 mpg before 1996.

NHTSA said the delay in raising the mpg standard for light trucks is due to the lack of time available. By law, the agency must issue a final rule establishing a model year 2004 CAFE standard by April 1, 2002. Since the beginning of 1996, Congress had blocked NHTSA funding for the review of the 1996 standards, under pressure from the US motor industry. Manufacturers have argued that further increases would encourage smaller vehicles, which were considered less safe. When Congress lifted the block in December 2001, environmentalists were looking forward to tighter standards, but the NHTSA said they were left with no time to prepare for the 2004 deadline.

Environmentalists are expected to push for light-truck standards of 40 mpg over a period of years, by lobbying the Senate to amend an energy bill to toughen the nation’s fuel-economy laws.

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