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NEAL CONAN, host:

As gasoline prices reached an average of $2.61 a gallon around the country this past weekend, the Bush administration has announced new fuel-economy standards for certain vehicles like minivans, light trucks and small sport utility vehicles. The new rules would require automakers to increase mileage per gallon for those vehicles by about 8 percent starting in 2008 with full compliance by 2011. Also current rules will be displaced by six separate categories based on size. Well, we'd like to hear from you. What do you think of higher fuel-efficiency standards? Do they go far enough? (800) 989-8255. E-mail us: totn@npr.org.

Fred Webber is the CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. He's with us now from his office here in Washington, DC.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. FRED WEBBER (CEO, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers): Thank you. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: How--what's your response to these new standards?

Mr. WEBBER: Well, we haven't seen the fine print. We're trying to get the data. We're trying to get the numbers. And, therefore, until we do, we're not sure what the impact is going to be, but this is the second time that the Bush administration has raised fuel-economy standards. This one is rather intriguing because of the six categories that Secretary Mineta made reference to, and we've seen in print. Again, we don't know how those categories break out. We don't know what the impact is going to be. I would urge people to keep in mind, though, that anytime you raise fuel-economy standards for the automobile industry, it becomes a major challenge, even with all of the new fuel-efficient technologies that are offered for sale today.

CONAN: Isn't it a challenge the industry has always met before?

Mr. WEBBER: The industry has done a pretty doggone good job of meeting those challenges, but, again, it's not as easy as it seems, and, right now, automakers are fiercely competing to bring more fuel-efficient vehicles to market, and so that that will benefit the consumer, and that's for obvious reasons.

CONAN: One aspect of these new regulations, as you've properly said, the fine print has not been decided, as yet, but one aspect is that the loophole that existed under the old guidelines for light trucks, which included minivans and sport utility vehicles...

Mr. WEBBER: Right.

CONAN: ...that seems to be closing.

Mr. WEBBER: I think that's right, but, again, I want to see it in print. I want to see how they're going to close that loophole.

CONAN: Would you prefer that there be no change, that there be no government demand for increases in fuel efficiency?

Mr. WEBBER: I don't think we'd ever go on record and say that we shouldn't be hearing from the government in terms of increasing fuel efficiency. The good news again here is that the industry is investing billions and billions of dollars, both in terms of advanced-technology vehicles as well as vehicles that use fuel more efficiently. So this is pretty consistent with what we're doing anyway. And we're just going to have to live with the new standard. NHTSA's done a good job over the years in raising those standards. And we're ready to comply.

CONAN: We're talking about new fuel-economy standards for larger vehicles. Our--this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And joining us now is Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America, author of "The Car Book." But he's with us also from his office in Washington, DC, and it's nice to have you on the program, as well.

Mr. JACK GILLIS (Author, "The Car Book"): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Do you think these new fuel standards go far enough, at least as far as they're outlined?

Mr. GILLIS: Well, again, we don't know all the details, but it appears that they really don't go far enough. I think the American consumer is very concerned about having access to vehicles with better fuel efficiency, especially with today's new technology, the technology that's already invented, the technology that we're seeing in some of the hybrid vehicles. We'd like to see the manufacturers be forced to offer that in greater numbers. We're in a very interesting situation right now because of these recent rebates of these recent sales plans from General Motors and Ford in which they offer deeply discounted cars, put about a million fuel-inefficient vehicles in the marketplace.

CONAN: Got to throw Chrysler in there, too.

Mr. GILLIS: Got to throw them in, as well, and bottom line is this is not only having an impact on our pocketbooks, but it's also having an impact on the environment and we've seen in the past that the car companies have only moved when the government has stepped in and forced them to make moves to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and we think the government could have made the standard a little bit more stringent, and we hope to go on record in saying that.

CONAN: There are also, as we mentioned, going to be several different categories, it appears, for different weight classes of SUVs and minivans. However, the heaviest SUVs, like the Hummer H2, will apparently be exempted from new fuel-economy standards.

Mr. GILLIS: Right, which is--I think points to a bit of the absurdity in this new regulation because those heavy vehicles are the ones that are causing the biggest problems in terms of fuel inefficiency. The other issue with these six categories, there is the potential, and, again, as the representative from the car companies indicated, we haven't seen exactly the details yet, but if they use weight, for example, to differentiate the categories, it's going to be very easy for a manufacturer to change the weight of a vehicle and move it into one category or another in order to do either better or worse in that category.

CONAN: And get that average. Anyway, let's get some--a listener involved in the conversation. Mark. Mark's with us from Salt Lake City.

MARK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARK: I think the automobile industry should be grateful they're being forced to raise their standards just so they can now compete with the foreign imports that are able to--have better mileage, and are now more popular because the higher price of gasoline. The automobile--GM is now going bankrupt because they had their day in the sun selling SUVs but now they're not as popular and they're going to go under because they refuse to look at the fact that we need to raise mileage standards on a long-term basis.

CONAN: Well, as Fred Webber pointed out, they are pouring a lot of research and development into that now, but, Fred, Mark's point is apt. A lot of imports are--a lot of American companies are losing out to more fuel-efficient imports.

Mr. WEBBER: Well, I'm not sure that's the case. People choose cars for different reasons and I'm not sure you can say that because some of the imports are better in terms of fuel efficiency, that's why people are buying them. Granted, a lot of people are gravitating towards the hybrid. That's new technology. It's exciting technology. The American companies are moving forcefully into that arena, as well, but I'd like to remind--respectfully remind Mark and others of the following fact: In the year 2002, the automobile industry invested $15 billion into research and development so we could come up with more fuel-efficient technologies and because we can come up with advanced-technology vehicles such as hybrids, fuel cells, hydrogen internal combustion engines, clean diesel, and it's very exciting.

I was in Detroit three weeks ago--I drove some of those cars. No one has to tell the global automobile industry, and especially the US automobile industry, that it needs to make more fuel-efficient cars.

CONAN: Yet...

Mr. WEBBER: They're on the track, they're working hard, they're trying to get there as quickly as they can.

CONAN: I read, though, that the fuel efficiency of American cars has actually declined on average over the past 20 years.

Mr. WEBBER: Well, I think it depends on how you measure it. The number I look at, Neal, is as follows: In the last 30 years, you had 100 percent increase in fuel efficiency as far as cars are concerned. You've gone from an average of 4.2 miles per gallon to 28.7. In terms of light trucks, from 1974 to 2004, you've had a 53 percent increase in mileage. In other words, 30 years ago you were getting about 13.7 on the average; today, you're getting 20.9.

CONAN: And we just have a few seconds left, if you could make a conclusion.

Mr. WEBBER: Well, my conclusion is the automobile industry globally is doing its best to come up with highly fuel-efficient technologies and also advanced-technology vehicles, and the proof is in the pudding. Many of them are in the marketplace today. We have over 100 vehicles...

CONAN: Right.

Mr. WEBBER: ...today in our car lots that get better than 30 miles per gallon.

CONAN: Thank you very much for being with us, and, Jack Gillis, I know that you might look at those numbers somewhat differently, but I'm afraid we're out of time. We appreciate both of you being with us today, Fred Webber of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and Jack Gillis, author of "The Car Book," director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America. We also thank Mark from Salt Lake for his call.

In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

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