Proposed new standards to make popular vehicles more fuel efficient and thereby protect the environment are beyond the scope of existing technology, at least according to US car makers. The public’s Jeckyll and Hyde desires are again behind the conflict, with improved dialogue between manufactures and regulators the only real solution.

US vehicle manufacturers, led by General Motors, have put up fierce opposition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) fuel economy proposals. The NHTSA wants to increase fuel economy standards for SUVs, pickup trucks and vans from 20.7 mpg to 22.2 mpg in model year 2007 to cut emissions.

But manufacturers claim the proposals are economically unworkable. In a 127 page filing with the Bush administration, GM has formally protested that these standards would lead to lighter, less safe vehicles and would cost the company $1.1 billion, far in excess of what the NHTSA has estimated.

Ford and DaimlerChrysler have added their voices to the criticism. Both have filed responses to the proposals in which they argue that the imposition of uniform fuel economy standards is an inefficient approach to the problem and one that unfairly penalises manufacturers.

What has got tempers flaring is a fundamental difference of opinion between what the NHTSA expects and what vehicle manufacturers feel capable of delivering in terms of fuel economy technology.

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Despite its development of efficient hybrid vehicles, GM estimates that by 2007, it will only be able to achieve 20.8 mpg from the vehicles it produces in the categories covered by the proposals. Meanwhile, there is a reasonable chance that technology available at Ford and DaimlerChrysler will also fail to meet the new standards.

Indeed, GM has accused the NHTSA of basing its proposals on a flawed analysis that fails to take adequate account of fundamental time and engineering constraints.

With the public pressuring regulators for stricter emissions standards in order to protect the environment while at the same time demanding SUVs and pickups from manufacturers, such conflicts are set to become more frequent.

The only solution at present would seem to be the establishment of effective dialogue between all parties to ensure that realistic, obtainable goals are set.

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