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Auto industry goes on offense in fuel debate.

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Old 05-06-2006, 01:35 PM
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Auto industry goes on offense in fuel debate.

Ads debut Monday as Congress looks at raising fuel economy rules.

David Shepardson - Detroit News – May 6, 2006



WASHINGTON - Under increasing pressure to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil, the auto industry is kicking off a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign Monday to convince Congress and the public it's doing its part - and to lobby for better consumer access to alternative fuels.

The Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers, a trade group that represents automakers including GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota, Mazda and BMW, is launching a campaign to recast the industry's image amid attacks from environmentalists and some oil companies that have chided automakers for failing to significantly improve fuel economy amid the recent run-up in gas prices.

The campaign's Web site, discoveralternatives.com, is already operating. The ads will offer a detailed look at vehicles already on the road that aren't gas guzzlers. In one spot, green tread marks appear on an empty Georgetown street with the slogan: "There goes another one."

"We want to let people know what we're doing. We know we have a lot to do, but we've already done a lot," said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the trade group.

The industry says there are more than 40 alternative fuel vehicles for sale that rely on gasoline-electric power, diesel or processed corn, and 35 more will be introduced in the next year. Some 8 million alternative fuel vehicles are in use on U.S. roads today, including about 5 million vehicles capable of running on E85 -- a fuel made of 85 percent ethanol, a corn derivative.

"Automakers are part of the solution," the campaign argues. "Priorities: put more alternative fuel autos on our roads."

Big 3 feel pressure

Detroit's struggling automakers have come under increasing criticism in recent months as gas prices have climbed. President Bush has warned domestic automakers not to expect a bailout and instead to make "relevant" products.

Last week, Bush abruptly asked Congress for authority to raise fuel economy standards for passenger cars, which haven't been increased in two decades. The industry has opposed the standards because it says it would force people to buy smaller, ostensibly less safe cars.

Bush's proposal generated a speedy hearing in the U.S. House on Wednesday, and another hearing is scheduled in the Senate on Tuesday.

The growing debate over gas prices and fuel economy is expected to be front and center when Bush meets with the CEOs of Detroit's three automakers May 18 at the White House.

David Friedman, director of the Clean Vehicle Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, dismissed the ad campaign.

"Instead of putting the engineers to work to improve fuel economy, they're using the marketers," he said. "They've got to stop looking in the rearview mirror and agree to dramatically improve fuel economy."

The cars, SUVs, minivans and other light vehicles that ply U.S. roads consume 10 percent of the world's oil supply -- much of the 20 million barrels of oil the country uses daily.

Ads target blogs

The campaign -- targeted at Congress and so-called opinion makers -- includes banner ads that will appear next week on Internet blogs heavily trafficked by congressional aides both on the left and right of the political spectrum -- dailykos.com, wonkette.com, redstate.com and corner.nationalreview.com.

The advertisements are designed to influence the intensifying debate in Washington over the role automakers should play in reducing oil consumption.

The campaign will also feature ads in the Washington Post, Roll Call, Congressional Quarterly and National Journal.

Many of the print ads offer a breakdown of alternative vehicles in use in each state. Texas has 748,000 alternative fuel vehicles, the most in the country due primarily to the large number of diesel vehicles. Michigan has 358,000 alternative fuel vehicles, the fourth highest in the nation, but just 5,236 hybrids, which is 15th highest.

Another ad reads: "The Liquid Diet We'd Like To See" and shows a fueling station with gas, diesel, ethanol and hydrogen. "As a country, we need to work together to ensure diverse energy supplies," the ad said.

Nearly all of the flexible fuel vehicles on the road today operate on regular gasoline, because out of 180,000 gas pumps nationwide, just 650 offer E85, including just six in Michigan.

Jason Vines, a Chrysler Group spokesman and critic of the oil industry, noted: "We can get all the bang for building E85 vehicles but it doesn't last very long when people don't drive by a pump that says E85."
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