Thu, Feb

More Trucks Likely to Come Under New CAFÉ Umbrella

Fuel-economy standards for light trucks will rise slightly in the next two years and could change dramatically as early as 2008, when new definitions of what constitutes a truck may take effect.

Fuel-economy standards for light trucks will rise slightly in the next two years and could change dramatically as early as 2008, when new definitions of what constitutes a truck may take effect.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is more than a year into a review of truck fuel-economy standards but has yet to indicate what might change and how it will affect carmakers and thus consumers.

"It is a monumental undertaking," NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said. "There are a lot of ideas being looked at." When NHTSA announced plans in December 2003 for a deep dive into corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) standards for trucks, the agency said the current rules, written more than 25 years ago, bear "little resemblance to today's motor-vehicle market."

Using a sales-weighted average, CAFÉ requires each manufacturer's passenger cars to average 27.5 m.p.g. and trucks 21 m.p.g.

Among issues are loopholes that let car-based models such as the Subaru Outback, Ford Freestyle and Chrysler PT Cruiser qualify as trucks to help manufacturers meet CAFÉ. Also under review is a provision that exempts some trucks from fuel-economy standards.

Heavy-duty pickups and sport-utilities such as the Hummer H1 and Ford Excursion are exempt if their gross vehicle weights are more than 8,500 pounds. One option is to raise the weight limit for "light trucks" to 10,000 pounds to encompass those models.

NHTSA has been mum on what might change since it began its review. One reason is that it has had to digest more than 66,000 comments from interest groups, manufacturers and consumers last year on how to remake CAFE.

"It's an issue that resonates," Tyson said of the avalanche of opinion. "We asked for comments. We sure got them." NHTSA's timetable is to propose new truck CAFÉ rules this year, brace for another round of comments, and issue a final rule by April 2006 to give manufacturers time to make changes for the 2008 model year.

Before the current review was announced, NHTSA boosted truck CAFÉ for 2005 to 21 m.p.g. from 20.7, the standard since 1996. Next year, the standard rises to 21.6 m.p.g. and in 2007 it goes to 22.2.

Because NHTSA is looking only at trucks, CAFÉ for cars should remain 27.5 m.p.g.

Each manufacturer has to meet those standards with the fleet of vehicles it sells, using a sales-weighted average, or pay fines that can run into the millions.

What makes a vehicle a car or truck is a major part of NHTSA's review.

A key requirement for calling a passenger vehicle a truck is that all seats except the driver's can be removed or folded to create a cargo floor from front to back.

When that rule was written, trucks made up less than 25 percent of sales, and most were pickups and cargo vans. Today, trucks account for about 55 percent of sales, and most are passenger models such as SUVs and minivans.

Early SUVs were based on trucks, but a growing number are "crossover" models based on cars. These include the Subaru Forester and Outback, Toyota Highlander, Ford Escape and Freestyle, Chevrolet Equinox and Saturn Vue.

Critics of the current rule say this allows manufacturers to masquerade cars as trucks to offset the gas-guzzling pickups and large SUVs and meet truck CAFÉ.

Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents several major automakers, said the industry fears that higher fuel-economy requirements will force manufacturers to build vehicles that consumers don't want.

Automakers are improving fuel economy by adding gas/electric models, diesels, cylinder deactivation, more efficient transmissions and other technologies, he said.

"The challenge is getting consumers to invest in them because they are generally very expensive until you achieve economies of scale," Shosteck said. "But it doesn't matter what we build if people don't buy it."

To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.chicagotribune.com. (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.