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Increasing Fuel Efficiency in SUVs

Experts discuss a National Academy of Sciences report urging better fuel efficiency for SUVs.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    America's automotive love affair with cars, SUV's and light trucks may be hitting a bump in the road. A new National Academy of Sciences report examines whether these popular vehicles can be built to consume less gasoline. Among other things, the study finds fuel efficiency can be improved by 20 to 40 percent, using technology that already exists; and implementing these improvements would take at least ten to 15 years. But improving fuel efficiency has its tradeoffs, potentially affecting vehicle safety, cost, and consumer preference. Whether to increase fuel efficiency standards has become part of the energy debate now before the House of Representatives.

    Here with a preview: Paul Portney, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences study. He is President of Resources for the Future, an energy and environmental issues think tank. Representative Billy Tauzin — a Louisiana Republican, and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee; he supports limited increases in fuel efficiency standards. And Representative George Miller — a Democrat from California and sponsor of a bill to raise standards to 40 miles a gallon.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Portney, what in your opinion is the most important highlight of your report?

  • PAUL PORTNOY:

    Well I think the committee found three things, Gwen. First of all, looking backward to the time when the CAFE program was instituted, we found that the CAFE program in concert with a number of other factors produced significant increases in fuel economy that reduced the country's dependence on foreign oil and reduced greenhouse gas emissions but we also found that those improvements in fuel economy came at a cost. Cars became smaller and were down weighted, as the saying goes. That means that they became less safe. Car owners lost performance characteristics, rapid acceleration, towing capacity, et cetera, that they valued. And that was another adverse consequence of the CAFE program. Looking forward, we found as you mentioned we identified technologies that would make it possible to improve the fuel economy of the fleet in the years ahead — in some cases significantly. And not surprisingly the committee found that those improvements in fuel economy would also come at a cost.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Just to get this out of the way – the acronym CAFE means Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency.

  • PAUL PORTNOY:

    I'm sorry.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That's all right. People at home are thinking what cafe, what cafe? If this technology exists that you're talking about, what's wrong with implementing it? Why would it take so long?

  • PAUL PORTNOY:

    Well, it would take a long time because if you think about the way cars are manufactured, these companies have already locked themselves into certain production design standards. They've purchased tools that they need to make these cars. And so while some improvements in fuel economy might be possible in, say, a three- or four-year time frame for specific vehicle types, in order to put these changes into effect in the whole vehicle fleet, it would probably take ten to 15 years for the most ambitious changes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Okay. Give me an example that the layperson who drives an SUV every day to pick up the kids from soccer practice can understand: A Toyota, Four Runner or a Ford Explorer.

  • PAUL PORTNOY:

    A Ford Explorer, a Chevy Blazer. There are a number of these SUVS. You could probably take the fuel economy of one of those cars from, say, 20 miles per gallon which would be the average fuel economy for one of those now, up to something in the vicinity of 25, 26 miles per gallon, which is a non-trivial increase. If you did that over a 10- to 15-year period it might add as much as $1,000 to the purchase price of the car but there would be fuel economy savings that would help offset that higher purchase price of the car.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Nowhere in your report do you say exactly or recommend exactly how high standards should be raised to or even if they should be raised really. Why not?

  • PAUL PORTNOY:

    Well, because we felt that that's really the responsibility of elected and appointed officials. We felt what the panel could contribute is to try to show Congress and other decision makers would the trade-offs would be, how much fuel economy improvement would be possible but also how much additional that would add to cost and possibly to lost performance, et cetera.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's turn to the members of Congress and ask what they think about this report. Congressman Tauzin, what is your response to this National Academy of Sciences Report?

  • REP. BILLY TAUZIN:

    I tend to agree with it. I think frankly that SUVS and mini-vans have not yet contributed to fuel efficiency on the highway for our fleets and that they ought to be made to contribute. In fact, the plan that is before the House tomorrow without any amendment provides for five billion gallons of gasoline savings over the next six years implemented by NTSA, the agency that the NAS recognizes and charges with these decisions. And allows them to make, implement the five billion gallons saving through technology improvements in the various SUVS and mini-vans, recognizing, as you just heard, that there are serious trade- offs. If you move too quickly too fast and if you move numbers up too high too soon — that you could have lighter vehicles and more deaths and injuries on the highway.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Pardon me. When you say $5 billion savings, what do you mean by that? Does that mean — is there an equivalent number right now for, say, a passenger car the fuel efficiency standard is 27 miles a gallon, would it be 28, 29, 30 miles a gallon to save that five billion gallons?

  • REP. BILLY TAUZIN:

    Gallons, right. Let me give it to you in perspective. The 1999 fleet – the entire fleet of all the SUV's produced that year and the mini-vans produced that year, all those vehicles consume 2.4 billion gallons a year in gasoline. Saving five billion gallons over the next six years through fuel efficiencies and technologies as recommended by the NAS Study would be equivalent to parking that fleet for two years, not even running it for two years out of the six years. That is a significant impact, about a 20 percent increase in efficiencies in the fleets that will be produced over the next six years. That equates to something like that as much as 3.5 miles per gallon if it's implemented properly.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    3.5 miles per gallon. Congressman Miller you're talking about 40 miles a gallon up from 27. Explain what that would do and whether you see room for that in this report that is released today.

  • REP. GEORGE MILLER:

    Well, I don't think there's going to be room for that in this report that has been released and I think in the debate in the Congress it appears that it's going to be between Mr. Tauzin's proposal and an amendment that will try to erase the loopholes that SUV's now enjoy from relief from the mileage standards and bring the automobile fleet and the SUV fleet together. We think that that's a much better approach than the one that Mr. Tauzin has. We simply think that his approach is too timid. Clearly I think that now the National Academy tells us that this is doable; that clearly there are going to be costs to this. They also suggest that most of those costs — if not all of those costs — can be recovered by the consumer in gasoline savings.

    There are going to be safety concerns that as pointed out over the period of years clearly the safety can be improved at the same time that mileage standards are improved. So we simply think this is a question of whether or not this nation at this point in our history, when 70 percent of the oil that we use in this country, most of which is imported, is going to continue to be wasted in automobiles or whether or not we're going to finally get about as a national policy and interest and commitment to substantially improve those standards which now the National Academy says are clearly doable. I think that's really the contest. Mr. Tauzin talks about saving five billion gallons of gasoline over the next seven or eight years.

  • REP. BILLY TAUZIN:

    Six years.

  • REP. GEORGE MILLER:

    Six years. We think if you adopt the amendment to erase the SUV loophole, we're talking about 35 billion gallons of gasoline.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Miller, if I may just interrupt for a moment. You talked quickly about the trade-off with safety concerns. Isn't that a major tradeoff, to say that if people are going to be driving lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

  • REP. GEORGE MILLER:

    We don't know. It's a question of how the fleet is phased in. We don't know that it's a tradeoff These concerns have been raised but with all due respect many of these concerns have been raised by the people who were against seat belts, they were against air bags. They gave us the rollover Explorer; they gave us the exploding Corvette, the side panel gas tanks on pick-up trucks and Pintos that caught on fire. And, interestingly enough, they were able to redesign the Explorer rather rapidly when they found out that they were going to have huge liability in the contest between the tire manufacturers and Ford Motor.

    So I think clearly, you know, if we really put our minds to it and we look at new materials and we look at the ways to strengthen automobiles and there's been a long discussion about this for a long period of time, there is not a one-for-one tradeoff or even close to that in terms of safety and the substantial improvement of mileage.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Tauzin, what exactly do you, the White House has suggested in this energy debate that consumers just won't cut back, that there's a responsibility on the part of consumers to be able to accept some of these things. Do you think that anything in this report and anything in the legislation that's now before the House puts the pressure on consumers to decide that they're going to pay for more expensive trucks that will save more gas?

  • REP. BILLY TAUZIN:

    Well it's just not more expensive trucks that will save gas. The problem that Mr. Miller glosses over is the NAS numbers and the figures from the industry that indicate we have lost lives on the highway when we force the industry too fast to build lighter vehicles instead of the vehicles that protect our families. And the concern we have is that — these are the real numbers now — Is that for every 100 pounds that you lighten a vehicle in order to meet these standards that are imposed as Mr. Miller would do by Congress upon the industry at too fast a pace, for every 100 pounds you lighten a vehicle, there are 304 more deaths on the highway because of the lighter vehicles and the crashes that occur. It's not as simple as saying that Americans are willing to see 304 of their neighbors and friends and family die on the highway to somehow comply with some congressional mandate. The NAS report correctly says it. There are tradeoffs Part of the tradeoff is to make sure that we get fuel savings balanced against the need to make changes in these cars as they can indeed keep up with safety.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me allow, excuse me, Congressman.

  • REP. GEORGE MILLER:

    About 2 percent of it came from reducing weight, the rest came from technology.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman, allow me to let Mr. Portney respond to what Mr. Tauzin just said about the numbers in your report.

  • PAUL PORTNOY:

    Sure. Well, let me split the difference between the two Congressmen, Gwen, if I can. Mr. Tauzin makes an important point, and that is that if the fuel economy standards are to be increased, it's absolutely imperative that it be done over a long enough period of time that we don't have a crash program, no pun intended, to try to reduce fuel economy, to improve fuel economy. When we did this program for the first time between 1978 and 1982, over a four-year period we tried to get a 33 percent improvement in fuel economy. And in that short a period of time, the only way you can do that is by downsizing and down weighting vehicles dramatically, and that's what led to the adverse safety consequences.

    However, I agree with Representative Miller. I think if we take a long enough period of time, then we can see the kind of improvements in fuel economy that he talked about and to have those kinds of improvements without adverse safety consequences. Certainly the cars will become more expensive. But the Academy study was clear that we can get significant improvements in fuel economy without downsizing and down weighting if we do this over a long enough period of time.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Miller, is it correct for us to conclude that for a change you are having an argument this time about whether to raise fuel efficiency standards, how much to raise them instead of whether to raise them?

  • REP. GEORGE MILLER:

    Well, I think that to some extent that's the argument. Again, you know, I have a real difference with Representative Tauzin in that I just think we are capable now of doing more. What I would like to see is that we end up with a program of continuous improvement for mileage standards for now and in the foreseeable future because we know that very often technologies sit on the shelf because it's in no one's interest to incorporate them into the design or the use of the automobile.

    I think we've got to have a standard that continues to drive that, that continuous improvement, whether it's in design, in engineering, in the weight of the automobile, in the fuel mixtures — all of those things that we know American ingenuity and technology can bring to bear. So the time line to me is somewhat of less concern if I knew that we were going to make this continuous improvement. I don't think that the Tauzin standard or the committee standard in the bill drives that continuous improvement that could dramatically change our balance of payments, our contributions to climate change, the savings for the taxpayer, you know, the person buying and running the automobile. All of these are dramatic improvements to the good side for America.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Congressman Tauzin, please respond.

  • REP. BILLY TAUZIN:

    Let me first agree with him. I think it is important that we keep pushing the envelope. We don't haven't done this in 17 years on SUV's. We're pushing hard. We're saying within the next six years you're going to find these improvements. As a minimum, understand what the proposal before Congress tomorrow is. It says that NTSA as a minimum must save five billion. NTSA has every right – we have got letters from NTSA confirming that. We have not taken away their authority. In fact this is a floor they must achieve. They can do more if they want to. And if the NAS report encourages them to do more and the industry can do more, so be it, we should. We don't disagree on that.

    We do disagree, however, on the amendment that will be offered to replace the committee agreement, which would, in fact, on a time line that's unacceptable arbitrarily set numbers which even NAS would not do that will, I believe, and many of us believe force the industry to make decisions that are going to compromise safety on the highways. That's got to be one of our biggest concerns.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Portnoy, I'm going to ask you to split the difference between the two Congressmen again and give me a sense that there's a middle ground on this.

  • PAUL PORTNOY:

    Again, I think there is. I think that I would probably opt for and I think the members of my committee would probably opt for a somewhat more ambitious program than Congressman Tauzin has talked about. But I also would say that the study numbers suggests that at least some of the numbers that have been thrown around at the high end are probably unrealistic even over the 10- to 15-year period. I think there is a middle ground and I think that's what we need to search for.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Portnoy, Congressman Tauzin and Miller, thank you very much for joining us.

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