Last month, the U.S. government took an unusual step and made a decision that actually makes sense.
The news came from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which proposed hiking the fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars and light trucks.
The Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, or CAFE, will increase by 4.5 percent annually over a five-year period ending in 2015, representing a 25 percent total improvement. This is more ambitious than the 3.3 percent annual improvement proposed by Congress last year.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters called the plan ``ambitious, yet achievable.''
A better description might be ``welcome, but late.''
Here are the details:
* Passenger vehicles, which currently average 27.5 miles per gallon, would need to achieve an average of 35.7 mpg by 2015. The car standard has not changed since 1990.
* Light trucks would have to achieve increases from 23.5 mpg in 2010 to 28.6 mpg in 2015. The current standard, at 22.5 mpg, is up slightly more than 10 percent since 1992.
The standards would reduce fuel consumption by 55 billion gallons over the lifetime of the vehicles affected, according to Transportation Department officials.
Two years ago we published an editorial taking the Bush administration to task for avoiding real progress in setting new CAFE standards. We said the government's proposal at the time did not go far enough, and added, ``President Bush was right when he said recently that America is addicted to oil. The government needs to make sure that its policies don't continue to contribute to that problem.''
Just think of what sort of progress we could have seen on fuel economy if the government had gotten serious in 2006.
Or back in 2001, when terrorist attacks on America should have prompted quick action.
Or after the 1979 oil crisis. (Remember the Iranian revolution?)
Or all the way back in 1973, after the first oil embargo.
OK, that's simplifying things too much. The government did take some actions in the 1970s, when the shock of political problems in the Middle East first drove U.S. gasoline prices above $1 per gallon.
As we noted back in 2006, encouraging energy savings is a noble and necessary goal, and the federal government is correct to adopt policies with that aim. Creating a level playing field, with aggressive rules that all must meet, will benefit the nation.
And the plastics industry has much to gain, since higher CAFE standards should mean that automakers will redouble efforts to use lighter-weight materials.
The first step should be to take another look at plastic body panels. Suppliers could start making sheet molding compound and polyolefin parts immediately, as well as lighter-weight polycarbonate automotive glazing.
Resin and plastic component suppliers have been frustrated for many years by carmakers' reluctance to get serious about improving fuel economy. These new government CAFE standards are a step in the right direction.
Now it's time to unleash the industry's creative forces and help achieve — and surpass — the new government standards.