The federal government will not require significant improvements in automobile fuel economy until at least the 2005-model year, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said on Dec. 6.NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge told the Senate Commerce Committee that his agency needs time to study the best way to improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles sold in the United States without compromising safety.He said requirements for an increase for the 2004-model year would have to be in place by April 1, but doesn’t provide enough time for NHTSA to consider the complex issue and set an appropriate level.Since 1996, Congress has blocked NHTSA from even studying an increase in fuel economy stan-dards for the U.S. auto fleet. When President Bush signs a new transportation spending bill that won final congressional approval on Dec. 5, the agency will be free to begin its work on a new policy.The current standards – called Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE – require each automaker’s fleet of cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon. The fleet of light trucks, which includes pickups, vans, and sport/utility vehicles, must get 20.7 miles per gallon.As light trucks have become more popular in recent years, average fuel efficiency of the U.S. fleet has decreased. Runge did not say whether NHTSA would use the CAFE approach or some other formula to reverse the trend.Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he would propose an increase in CAFE standards for both light trucks and cars next month. Kerry said he was not ready to commit to a specific level, but was considering an increase that would be phased in over several years. He also suggested it would be combined with tax credits to encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles.Several automakers testified at the hearing that they are working to improve fuel efficiency, but the companies cannot agree on an appropriate increase or whether there should be one at all. General Motors Corp. argued that it should be free to develop its long-term objective of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles with zero emissions instead of focusing on short-term government goals to improve fuel economy.In August, the House voted down a proposal in the energy bill that would have required SUVs to achieve the same 27.5-mpg average of cars by 2007. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Brighton) is asking Bush not to support an increase in the Senate and instead support the House’s rejection of higher CAFE standards.