Foreign Automakers Back Fuel Economy Hike

by : Anthony Fontanelle

Foreign automakers expressed support Monday for the Dingell bill. The bill, if approved into law, would increase federal fuel efficiency standards and bar California from imposing its own more dramatic requirements. Detroit automakers said that they had not ruled out endorsing it.

The declaration signaled the very first mark of willingness among automakers to accept higher fuel economy mandates. The bill could put a halt to their production of some large and more profitable models.

At present, domestic automakers are still in the process of contemplating how much support they should give the proposal in the midst of accelerating pressure from Congress to take action to slash greenhouse gases and cut foreign oil dependence. Privately, they said that they would at least call the proposal "a step in the right direction" when the CEOs of Detroit's Big Three appear Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

GM declined to say if it would endorse the Dingell bill. "Our message is that we're willing to work on the right energy and climate solutions that can make a difference," spokesman Greg Martin said. "We'll reassert that biofuels offer the best near-term potential." Ford and DaimlerChrysler officials said they are studying the bill.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, drafted the 57-page bill. Dingell has met with the three Detroit CEOs and the Toyota Motor Corp.'s top North American executive, urging them to support the bill. Last Thursday, he met with Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. on Mackinac Island.

The bill, co-penned by Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., the chairman of the Energy and Air subcommittee, would require automakers to average at least 36 miles per gallon for passenger cars by 2021 and 30 mpg for trucks by 2024. It also calls for the Transportation Department to set the "maximum feasible" level starting in September 2011.

Dingell's bill, unstopped by , will be back to the limelight Wednesday when the CEOs of the General Motors Corp., the Ford Motor Co. and the DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group will be on Capitol Hill for a forum on manufacturing. The CEOs will also make their case for a reasonable fuel economy bill in private meetings with congressional leaders.

Mike Stanton, the president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Toyota, Honda Motor Co., and Nissan Motor Co. among others, commended the bill, except for provisions related to required increases in flexible-fueled vehicles. The bill requires automakers to have 45 percent of their fleet flexible-fuel capable by the 2012 model year, and 85 percent by 2020.

"We'd endorse the bill with a reservation or two and try to make it better," Stanton said. "Getting the industry as a whole to agree on a proposal would be "truly historic. But you don't want to endorse something to the point it becomes a kiss of death."

Toyota spokeswoman Martha Voss said that the proposed passenger car fuel economy increase "is close to something we can live with." She said that the truck increase would be more "challenging." Voss added meeting the proposed flex fuel mandate may be difficult since product plans are generally set through 2012.

Ed Cohen, the vice president for government and industry relations, said that Honda supports bio fuels, but does not think the flexible fuel provision makes sense. "The ramp-up is faster than what's needed because the fuel isn't out there to accommodate it," he said. Detroit's support of a big increase in fuel economy mandates would reverse two decades of fierce efforts on Capitol Hill to successfully block increases.