Reducing what federal law considers polluting emissions involves cutting such gases as nitrogen oxide and tiny particulants. It does not apply to the production of carbon dioxide - which many scientists fear is warming the earth. The only way to reduce carbon dioxide is to burn less fuel. The only way to do that is sell smaller vehicles, or make larger vehicles lighter, while making their engines and drive-trains more efficient.
Since fuel is cheap, and many don't care if that new SUV or pickup gets as little as 14 miles a gallon, the pressure for efficiency won't come directly from consumers. And since the car companies aren't about to stop making these popular gas-guzzlers, the government should raise mandatory fuel economy standards for them. Now, the average car has to get 27.5 miles per gallon, while your average light truck and SUV only a modest 20.7.
Last week, 31 U.S. senators sent President Clinton a letter calling for just that.
The auto industry shouldn't simply shout no, as it did back in the 1970s when fuel economy standards were first proposed - and then met. Or as it did for years with air bags.
Those smart Detroit engineers should be able to reduce the weight of pickups and SUVs and improve their efficiency. That will result in better mileage and less greenhouse gas. And, just as with fuel economy and air bags, it will be a marketing opportunity.
Automakers often end up selling hard to the public the very improvements they have to be dragged into making.
Would these changes add to sticker price? Sure - but most estimates are that it would be less than $500 per vehicle. So let's be real. Buyers are evidently willing to spend $25,000, $35,000 or more on those vehicles - which as of last year accounted for nearly 50 percent of all family vehicles sold in America. Back in 1990, their market share was only 33 percent. The car companies make profits of $5,000 or $10,000 a sale.
The additional cost of greening these road warriors a little is modest - and will yield fuel savings over time.