WHAT'S it going to take - $4 a gallon gasoline? - before Congress gets serious about improving fuel-economy standards for American motor vehicles?
With gas selling above $3 in and around Toledo even before the start of the heavy summer driving season, some analysts predict the $4 mark could be reached yet this year. How does a $60 fill-up grab you?
All these questions - we don't need to guess at the answers - are prompted by reports that bipartisan chicanery on Capitol Hill could sabotage legitimate attempts to mandate higher federal mpg requirements for new vehicles.
Legislation introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, and Olympia Snowe, Republican of Maine, would raise the corporate average fuel economy number for passenger cars and light trucks to 35 mpg by 2018. The CAFE standard has been mired at a dismal 25 mpg for the better part of 30 years, unconscionably low considering this nation's shameful 60-plus percent dependence on foreign oil.
But, just as the bill was making headway, two other senators, Daniel Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, and Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, threw in substitute legislation that would allow the Secretary of Transportation to scrap the 35 mpg requirement if it is shown "not to be cost-effective."
Such weasel words would turn a respectable, achievable mileage standard into what the National Environmental Trust calls "an unenforceable wish."
Indeed, federal mileage standards have been rendered impotent due to lobbying by the auto industry. American firms have, by and large, produced vehicles that struggle to meet the federal requirements. Moreover, those regulations contain enough loopholes that many cars sold today can achieve impressive mileage on their window stickers but not in actual use.
The marketplace success of high-mileage vehicles as the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid indicate that consumers will eagerly buy quality cars that sip gas instead of guzzling it. What the automakers need is the incentive - or mandate, if necessary - to produce them.
Congress must shed its moss-backed complacency and legislate stringent fuel-economy standards as part of an overall energy policy that helps encourage conservation on the part of motorists.
Indications are that gas prices haven't yet reached the threshold that would radically change consumer behavior and induce a mass trend toward higher-mileage cars. Maybe $4 a gallon gas will do the trick.