As gas prices hit record levels for the third consecutive week, the Bush administration announced plans Tuesday to force automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of most sport-utility vehicles, minivans, and pickups starting in 2008 - the first overhaul of industry standards in 30 years.
But heavier vehicles like Hummers, big pickups, and full-sized vans will continue to be exempt from the standards, and environmental groups said the new regulations will have little impact on the nation's gas usage because they will encourage companies to produce more gas-guzzlers.
With a busy freeway as a backdrop, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta announced the changes in Atlanta, saying they will save Americans 10 billion gallons of fuel over the first four years the regulations are in place. The Transportation Department estimated the fuel economy of all "light trucks" - including most SUVs, pickups, and minivans, which now represent more than half of all US auto sales - will be boosted by about 8 percent.
"The cost of filling up is hitting many family budgets very hard," Mineta said. "This is a plan that will save gas and result in less pain at the pump for motorists."
But environmental groups and some Democrats said the new rules will do practically nothing to address gas prices or the nation's dependence on oil. Even assuming the administration is right about conserving 10 billion gallons of gas over four years, the savings will barely affect a nation that burns 11 billion gallons every month, said Kevin S. Curtis, vice president of the National Environmental Trust.
The proposal comes as Americans are paying high prices for gas. The government says the current average price for a gallon of unleaded regular is $2.612, according to USA Today.
The standards will be phased in from 2008 to 2011. NHTSA will take public comments through November and will need to finalize the plan by April to meet the 2008 start. The agency also will take comments on whether the standards should be extended to trucks from 8,500 to 10,000 pounds. Those trucks, such as Hummer H2, are excluded under current rules.