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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

More now on those CAFE standards. Congress wants to raise the bar for all passenger vehicles to 35 miles per gallon over the next 10 years. That's up from 27 miles per gallon for cars and 22 miles per gallon for light trucks and SUVs. Automakers claim they cannot meet the new standards and produce the kind of cars that Americans want to buy. And they've launched an ad campaign to make their case.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

Unidentified Woman #1: Hey, how do you like your car?

NORRIS: Oh, I love it. I know it's a little bigger than others, but we really feel safe in it.

NORRIS: Well, I hope you're planning on holding on to it for a while.

Unidentified Woman #2: Why?

Woman #1: Because Congress is about to pass a law that's going to make it harder and harder to find a car like yours.

NORRIS: An ad there from the auto industry. So why can't automakers increase fuel efficiency as proposed in the energy bill and produce larger, sturdier, vehicles? We put that question to New York Times reporter Micheline Maynard. She's the paper's Detroit bureau chief, and she reports on the auto industry, and she joins us now from New York.

So that claim from the auto industry, they can't possibly meet these standards and meet America's appetite for larger vehicles. Is that true?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: I actually don't think it is true, Michele, and I think the issue here is not just an issue of technology - it's an issue of marketing. Over the last 15 years or so, Detroit companies made billions of dollars in profit selling SUVs and pickup trucks. And at that time, gasoline was cheap, gasoline in many parts of the country was under $2 a gallon and people bought millions and millions of these big vehicles. In fact, people said, you know, this is what Detroit wants us to buy, this is what we'll buy.

NORRIS: You're saying it's more of a marketing challenge than a matter of science or design.

MAYNARD: I really do think that it is because these carmakers compete in places like Europe and in China. And fuel economy standards in those places are significantly higher, even higher than the Senate legislation that's under discussion right now. And they manage to meet them, and they manage to compete in those markets. Now granted in Europe, people pay about 25 percent more for vehicles than they do in the United States.

And one of the reasons is that gas prices are just so high there that they're willing to pay more for technology that will get them fuel economy. And in China, the market is evolving, but, you know, even China has higher fuel economy standards than the United States. And they've only had fuel economy standards for a couple of years.

NORRIS: At the same time now, the auto industry has said that it's ready to endorse an amendment coming from Democratic Senator Carl Levin, an amendment that would give automakers a little more time to comply with the new standards, but would ultimately call for something similar. Thirty-six miles per gallon for car and 30 miles per gallon for light trucks. What's so different about this proposal that makes it more palatable to the auto industry?

MAYNARD: Well, what's specifically different is they get more time to do that. And in fact, this is kind of waving the white flag on Detroit's part. A few months ago, they were saying that they wanted to be part of the fuel economy debate, and this was after President Bush actually proposed higher fuel economy standards. And then we saw this wave of ads basically saying, you know, you'll - they'll take your right to own a pickup or an SUV away. And I think the public attitude toward fuel economy has changed significantly. People are really hurting in some parts of the country from these higher fuel prices. And I think, you know, that the tide towards pickups and SUVs is over anyway. Five years ago, people wanted to buy those vehicles, but gas prices are high now and people are moving away from them.

NORRIS: Micheline Maynard, thanks for talking to us.

MAYNARD: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Micheline Maynard covers the auto industry for the New York Times. She's based in Detroit.

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