Automakers resist U.S. pressure for 62 mpg standard

Thu May 12, 2011 2:54pm EDT

* Automakers send letter to Obama administration

* Fuel regulation for 2017/2025 still in the works

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON, May 12 (Reuters) - Major automakers on Thursday pushed back against congressional pressure to nearly double vehicle fuel efficiency through 2025, saying "overly aggressive" targets could hurt sales, employment and safety.

The lobbying group representing General Motors Co (GM.N), Ford Motor Co (F.N), Chrysler Group FIA.MI, Toyota Motor Corp (TM.N)(7203.T) and European manufacturers are chaffing at proposals for 6 percent annual efficiency requirements that would push fleet averages above 62 miles per gallon.

"The alliance believes it is inappropriate to be promoting any specific fuel economy/greenhouse gas at this point," the group's acting chief executive, John Whatley, said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Whatley cited U.S. Energy Department data showing a 62 mpg standard would undercut vehicle sales and industry employment, which is rebounding in a sluggish economy.

On safety, Whatley said the sharp change could also have the potential to affect vehicle design that could influence safety, which government figures show is improving as more and more vehicles are driving many more miles on U.S. roads each year.

Auto companies in the past have responded to tougher fuel standards by making lighter cars and trucks.

Whatley's points were prompted by a letter signed last month by 18 U.S. senators and sent to the two Obama administration officials who oversee fuel and emissions regulations.

The mostly Democratic group concluded that the record target, if imposed by transportation and environmental regulators later this year, would be "technically feasible and cost effective for consumers."

"The recent spike in oil prices remind us once again of the importance of your cooperative efforts to reduce America's dependence on oil," the group, led by California's Dianne Feinstein and Olympia Snowe of Maine, said.

The administration is weighing a range of targets for the next round of fuel and emissions efficiency proposals, which are expected out soon.

The options would boost fuel efficiency 3 percent to 6 percent annually from 2017 to 2025, or 47 mpg to 62 mpg. The top standard would save 45 billion gallons of oil -- equal to almost 1.1 billion barrels -- and reduce carbon pollution by 450 million tons by 2030, according to environmental advocates at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Government standards imposed in 2009 require automakers to achieve 35.5 mpg by 2016, up 42 percent from current levels.

U.S. passenger vehicles emit about 20 percent of the nation's carbon emissions and consume about 44 percent of its oil, figures show.

Automakers would rely on numerous conventional engine, transmission and component technologies and lighter vehicle designs to meet new targets. These would include gasoline and diesel power.

Gasoline-electric hybrids, a growing but still fractional segment of the market now, would play a prominent role in meeting 62 mpg. Plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles would also be a component of the fleet mix.

President Barack Obama hopes to see 1 million plug-in electric cars on the road by 2015. (Editing by Maureen Bavdek)