By Dee-Ann Durbin
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Sport utility vehicles, vans and pickup trucks will have to get better gas mileage over the next three years under new government standards.
The new rule, announced this week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, requires manufacturers to attain a fleet average for vehicles in the "light truck" category of 22.2 miles a gallon beginning with the 2007 models, an increase of 1.5 mpg over current requirements.
Automakers said the new rule will be difficult to achieve technologically.
"We're committed to it, but it is going to be a challenge," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
The alliance wants Congress to approve tax incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles to encourage consumers to buy them, since an automaker's fleet average is determined by how much consumers buy. The group says automakers are offering more than 30 models with fuel economy ratings above 30 mpg, but consumers aren't buying them.
Critics said the change reflects no more than what automakers already have been planning to achieve with their SUV fleets. They also say it does nothing to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.
"(This change) will save our nation a minuscule six million barrels of oil a year - less than three percent of what we are importing from Iraq," National Environmental Trust President Philip E. Clapp said.
NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge defended the rule change, noting that it marks the first increase in the fuel economy standard since the mid-1990s and demonstrates that the Bush administration "is committed to improving vehicle fuel economy while protecting passenger safety and American jobs."
For model years beyond 2007, NHTSA plans to consider new ways to administer the fuel economy program, including changes to the classification of vehicles.
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