The US Senate Commerce Committee is expected to vote by early next month to significantly raise the fuel economy rules for cars and sport utility vehicles, congressional sources told Reuters.

Reuters said that the committee is working to finalise language on the new fuel requirements that will be added to a comprehensive Democratic-sponsored energy bill, which will be debated during the second week of February.

Current Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards require passenger cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) and light trucks to get 20.7 mpg.

Reuters said that the new numbers have not been finalised, but a draft copy of the energy bill circulated last month called for increasing the fuel efficiency of cars built between 2007 and 2010 to 36 mpg and to 27.5 mpg for light trucks.

A committee staffer could not confirm if the fuel requirements in the draft bill are similar to what is being considered by lawmakers on the panel, Reuters added.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal said there was disagreement in the vehicle industry over the effect new CAFÉ rules might have on safety.

The WSJ said that Honda presented a Senate committee with a new study challenging rival vehicle makers’ claims that safety would be undermined by higher federal fuel-economy requirements for sport-utility vehicles and other trucks.

Honda backed a recent report by a National Academy of Sciences panel which said the industry could significantly increase its vehicles’ fuel economy over approximately 15 years, the WSJ said, adding that the Japanese car maker disputed arguments that boosting fuel economy would make vehicles less safe.

According to the WSJ, Honda has hired a consultant to study the issue, and the preliminary conclusion is that reducing the weight of an average vehicle by 100 pounds has a “very small and not statistically significant” effect on the number of traffic deaths.

The WSJ said the trade group representing most other major US vehicle makers presented a different view about the feasibility of such an increase, suggesting contention within the vehicle industry as Congress and the Bush administration consider changes to the CAFE standards.