A good deal of the economic mess this country is in right now can be traced back to the big jump in fuel prices about a year ago. That triggered a slowdown in car sales, and the economy has been struggling to recover ever since. If oil companies can be believed, it's all a case of supply and demand: Today's big vehicles use more gasoline, and Americans aren't very good at conserving.
Given the finite supply of global crude and the degree to which North America is dependent upon foreign supplies, the government has a responsibility to encourage efficiency. Carmakers need to recognize that and stop being a roadblock to such efforts.
Instead, Detroit seems mixed up on the subject of gas mileage.
Carmakers admit they can take steps to boost fuel efficiency, but they fight legislative efforts to mandate improvement. Even tame proposals, like an Aug. 1 House amendment to enhance fuel economy in light trucks, have been scuttled in the name of saving market share. (They cleverly say the issue is about saving jobs).
Attention Detroit: Consumers don't like big minivans, trucks and sport utility vehicles because they're heavy and get poor gas mileage. They like them because they're big and can haul lots of people and cargo or because they're fun to drive.
These suburban Sherman tanks only need to average 20.7 miles per gallon because a loophole allows carmakers to classify them as trucks. As a result, they don't have to meet the stricter 27.5 mpg standard that cars must meet, or the more stringent safety standards that apply to cars.
The plastics industry would gain by any effort to improve fuel efficiency in light trucks. Plastics could help trim pounds off the 5,000-pound-plus behemoths like the Ford Windstar and GM Hummer. In fact, some safety advocates believe U.S. roads would be safer if there weren't as much of a weight disparity between cars and light trucks.
Opportunities abound to use plastics in bumpers, fuel systems, intake manifolds and windows, not to mention exterior skins and structural applications. The technology exists, but it's up to processors, suppliers and carmakers to put together the right combination of cost, appearance and performance.
Another huge help would be to accelerate the switch from steel pickup-truck boxes to lightweight composite boxes. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. each are poised to make the change, but they understandably will be cautious to make sure consumers accept the new material.
Right now a government mandate seems like the best hope for improving fuel economy. A likely scenario might involve adding a few miles per gallon to the industry's average.
But an even better alternative would be to stop pretending that minivans and SUVs are trucks, and to reclassify them as cars. That would give carmakers the option to improve fuel economy anywhere in their product line they see fit, rather than locking them into changing the designs and features of their popular SUVs and minivans.