WASHINGTON - Market forces are generally irresistible in the USA. Federal rules are generally unbendable. They are clashing on the issue of fuel economy.
The auto industry may be losing its credibility as it struggles to comply with the 20-year-old law known as CAFE, which stands for corporate average fuel economy.
Americans don't want fuel-efficient vehicles. For years, automakers kept their averages under control by selling smaller cars like the Ford Escort at a loss, in order to sell more large cars and trucks at bigger profits.
But the rush to sport-utilities and other bigger, thirstier trucks finds the automakers out of easy answers. They are turning to tricks to try to comply - at least technically - with the command to average 27.5 miles per gallon (8.5 liters/100km) for cars and 20.7 miles per gallon (11.4 liters/100km) for light trucks. Fines can cost millions, as European luxury makers have known for years.
In 1997, GM, Chrysler and Ford missed the light-truck standard. Ford also fell short on cars, but because of the complexities - some say absurdities - of CAFE accounting, automakers have side-stepped penalties.
Consider Chrysler. In 1997, its light trucks failed to meet CAFE standards for the fourth year in a row, federal records show. But the company expects to avoid fines because it has begun to sell 1998 minivans that burn either gasoline or ethanol. Under the law, it can apply ethanol-fuel credits retroactively - not only for 1997, but also for 1996 and 1995.
The CAFE law allows companies to juggle credits backward as many as three years and forward as many as three years.
In a more blatant dodge, General Motors ended the 1998 model year for its biggest sport-utilities after only four months to help it juggle credits and debits with the 1995 model year.
Despite the charade, appeals by environmental groups to raise CAFE standards or tighten enforcement fall on deaf ears in the federal government.
'The Big 3 and federal government may be adversaries in terms of EPA and CAFE,' said Lincoln Merrihew, director of product advance for J.D. Power and Associates, 'but they are on the same page in terms of jobs.'