Automakers: Gas-Smart Cars Could Hurt Sales U.S. automakers say the types of vehicles that will get more miles per gallon of gas have features that consumers tend to shun, including four-cylinder engines and stick shifts. The Senate is set to debate new energy legislation, and a major issue is how much to raise fuel economy standards for cars and trucks in order to fight climate change.
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Automakers: Gas-Smart Cars Could Hurt Sales

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Automakers: Gas-Smart Cars Could Hurt Sales

Automakers: Gas-Smart Cars Could Hurt Sales

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're reporting this morning on two efforts on two sides of the globe to attack global warming. One of the efforts involves sheep, and we'll have more on that in a moment. The other involves your car.

Climate change is just one of many reasons that lawmakers want to improve fuel economy. The Senate is considering a plan that would require cars to get an average of 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on why that legislation faces opposition from the industry.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: It's not that carmakers are incapable of making vehicles that would get 35 miles to a gallon. But they say these wouldn't be the kinds of cars Americans are choosing.

Mr. DAVE McCURDY (President, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers): To get to those extreme targets, there's going to be trade-offs.

SHOGREN: Dave McCurdy of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers represents all the major car companies.

Mr. McCURDY: And the trade-offs will be in size and potentially in safety.

SHOGREN: McCurdy says these fuel-efficient cars might have small four-cylinder engines, stick shifts and other features that most Americans don't like. McCurdy admits that some Americans are buying cars that already meet the standard Congress is considering. The Toyota Prius is the ninth best-selling car so far this year.

Mr. McCURDY: Seventy-six thousand of those sold in the first five months of the year.

SHOGREN: But over the same time, Ford sold nearly four times that many F-Series pickup trucks.

Mr. McCURDY: So consumers are making those choices as we speak, and that's in an era of $3 gasoline.

SHOGREN: McCurdy says the Senate bill would strip consumers of choices. He says automakers can keep providing Americans with the big, powerful vehicles they want and improve fuel economy, but not at the pace the Senate bill would require. Critics, like David Friedman, say the industry is underestimating its own abilities.

Dr. DAVID FRIEDMAN (Research Director, Clean Vehicles Program, Union of Concerned Scientists): This is auto mechanics, not rocket science.

SHOGREN: Friedman is with the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists.

Dr. FRIEDMAN: It can be done without hybrids. It can be done without fuel cells, without plug-ins. It can be done with simple, conventional technologies.

SHOGREN: Such as something called an integrated starter generator.

Dr. FRIEDMAN: It's similar to what a hybrid can provide, but it's cheaper and easier. Basically, you pull up to a stoplight, the engine shuts off and before you can even move your foot from the brake pedal to the gas pedal, the engine's back on and you're ready to go.

SHOGREN: Five years ago, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences concluded that technologies were available or being developed that could significantly improve fuel efficiency. For instance, a minivan could get 37 miles to the gallon, and a large pickup truck could get 30 miles to the gallon.

But using all these technologies combined could add a few thousand dollars to the cost of those vehicles. Nevertheless, many of them already are being offered in Europe and Japan. But industry analysts caution that there are major differences between those countries and the United States.

Consumers there have big incentives to buy fuel-efficient vehicles because gasoline is heavily taxed, so pump prices are much higher. Besides, they say, technologies like these can only improve fuel economy by 20 to 25 percent. The Senate proposal seeks 40 percent. That's hard to get without bigger changes.

Gerald Meyers used to be an auto industry executive. Now he's a professor at the University of Michigan's business school.

Professor GERALD MEYERS (Management, University of Michigan Business School): It's one thing to say technically, I can't do it, and it's a second subject - which often gets overlooked - is, if I do it, do you think I can sell it?

SHOGREN: Meyers says so far, there's precious little evidence that Americans will buy the more expensive, fuel-efficient vehicles that Congress may demand.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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