Washington has spent the past two decades dictating to automakers the number of miles you can squeeze out of a gallon of gas. Congressmen, posing as automotive engineers, have pulled out of their hats figures that auto manufacturers had to reach — or else. Car companies are heavily fined if they don’t toe the line, even though fuel use depends more on what consumers will buy and how they drive than on what car manufacturers build.

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 set the future corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) standards for new domestic passenger cars. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which set the standards, are not without expertise. But having politicians in Congress dictate precisely the mileage new cars must attain years into the future is like predicting who will be president in 2020. What can only be seen as numbers guesswork on Capitol Hill is evident in the sharp differences in CAFÉ provisions between the House and Senate versions of the law over the years.

What has focused the spotlight on CAFÉ of late is the popularity of SUVs, light trucks, and vans. Consumers want and buy them. But these have less stringent CAFÉ standards than do passenger cars.

"The effectiveness of CAFÉ standards themselves," according to a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), "has been controversial. Since 1974, fuel imports have increased by roughly one-third," the CRS said. "Whereas domestic new-car fuel economy has about doubled." Studies suggest, the CRS noted, most gains in fuel economy in the 1970s and 1980s flowed from manufacturers’ technical accomplishments, not from government mandates.

Japan — without government interference — has built a car with a hybrid gas-electric propulsion system. An electric motor drives the car much of the time. The gas engine provides supplementary power and driving range. Mechanisms recycle leftover energy into fresh battery charges. When running on battery power, no emissions drift from its tailpipe. Over 100,000 of these cars are on the road worldwide. The car is the Toyota Prius. It gets up to 52 mpg.

U.S. car companies aren’t far behind. Ford is pursuing fuel-cell technology autos with zero tailpipe emissions. While not yet in show rooms, Ford’s P2000 and Focus FCV fuel-cell electric vehicles will supposedly be powered by hydrogen, the earth’s most abundant and cleanest fuel.

General Motors has unveiled, the world’s first vehicle that combines a hydrogen fuel cell with technology designed through global cooperation. Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of research and development, promises "affordable fuel-cell vehicles on the road by the end of the decade."

According to the CRS report, 70 percent of the improvement in fuel efficiency achieved so far "… was the result of weight reduction, improvements in transmissions and aerodynamics, wider use of front wheel drive and use of fuel injection."

The CRS report flatly states that CAFÉ is a slow and inefficient means of achieving reduction in fuel consumption. It says that the mandated fuel efficiency standards risk interfering with consumer choice and jeopardizing the health of the auto industry and the safety of consumers. Opponents of raising the mileage requirements of CAFÉ fear that artificially mandating greater fuel efficiency more quickly than technological advances allow could result in downsizing car weight and size, which could heighten injury in car crashes, CRS said.

President Bush has proposed that $1.2 billion be spent to develop clean, hydrogen-powered autos that could free us from dependence on foreign petroleum. It surely could come eventually. But it will be the auto companies that will make it happen.

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Note: Tait Trussell writes a weekly column for the Pioneer Group in Big Rapids, Mich., and collaborates on occasional projects with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He is the former managing editor for Nation’s Business magazine and was vice president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.