By Jim Mateja

Chicago Tribune

After the Bush administration announced its plan this week to force the nation’s automakers to produce more fuel-efficient trucks, there was gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts, which generated business for dentists and cardiologists, but failed to solve the problem of gasoline consumption.

The savings from the U.S. plan would be 25 days’ worth of fuel over 20 years, which also would do little to solve the problem of gas consumption.

Environmental groups screamed but automakers simply asked for time to study the plan. That means they are chuckling over its leniency.

Light trucks, which include sport-utility vehicles and minivans, must average 21 mpg. today, but the Bush folks raised the bogey to 24 mpg. starting in 2011, a 3 mpg. boost in six years.

Consider that Ford tweaked the V-8 on its 2006 Explorer SUV and gained 1.5 mpg., putting it halfway home.

A few more hybrid SUVs; a few more V-8s with displacement-on-demand to shut off cylinders when not needed; a few more crossovers that look like station wagons but count as trucks for mileage purposes; and a few more novelties such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevrolet HHR that also are counted as trucks and the 2011 standard is not only met, but exceeded.

But there’s a bigger concern. Mileage standards, even weak ones, address the problem only if consumers buy higher-mileage cars.

There’s no federal law mandating what we buy. It’s unlikely there ever will be since cars don’t elect politicians, the people who drive them do. The first to campaign by demanding people buy small, high-mileage cars probably will be the last to do so.

In the first seven months of this year, the highest-mileage car in the United States, the hybrid Honda Insight, rated at 61 mpg city/66 mpg highway, sold 364 units, down from 519 a year earlier.

The second-highest-mileage car, the Honda Civic hybrid, rated at 48/47, sold 14,960 units, down from 15,388.

But the V-8-powered Ford F-150 pickup rated at 15 mpg city/19 mpg highway, sold 534,659 units, up from 513,222.

The 21,437 unit increase in F-150 sales tops the combined sales of Insight and Civic through July.

Perhaps the concern about gas prices and mileage standards is being overblown.

Consider the recent “Jitters Index” from CNW Marketing Research. Based on consumer surveys, CNW found 1 percent of consumers are cutting back on snacks, 6 percent postponing buying furniture, 8 percent renting fewer movies and 18 percent smoking less to have the money to pay for gas. They aren’t standing in line to buy an Insight.

Those who favor mileage standards higher than 24 mpg insist adding more hybrid vehicles to the mix make it possible.

However, hybrids cost at least $3,000 to $5,000 more than gas-powered cars, a lot of dough to save a few gallons of $2.80 gas a week.

And the leading hybrid seller, Toyota, still hasn’t solved the problem that some of its hybrid Prius sedans tend to stall on the highway for no reason.

Hybrids are a temporary measure to conserve fuel until the industry can come up with hydrogen-powered cars that burn no gas and emit no pollution, and petroleum companies offer corner stations to pump the fuel.

But estimates that it may cost the equivalent of $5 per gallon to fill the tank with hydrogen and that a hydrogen fuel cell will cost 10 times more than a V-6 gas engine make you wonder whether it’s worth the wait.

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