Auto makers will have no trouble meeting Washington’s stricter light-truck fuel economy standards, say some industry observers, while others contend the technology exists to far exceed the new benchmark.

In the end, however, consumers stand to benefit as there appears to be no end in sight for rising gasoline prices.

“Fuel prices are up – they’re up a lot and by all indications, they’re going to stay up,” says Joe Phillippi, principal of AutoTrends, a New Jersey-based auto industry consulting firm. “The fuel economy regulations are actually a benefit for the customer in the sense that the car companies continue to meet them.”

The new standard shines a spotlight on fullsize pickups, fullsize vans and large SUVs with a gross vehicle weight rating 8,500-10,000 lbs. (3,556-4,536 kg). For the first time, the performance of these vehicles will be factored into an auto maker’s light-truck corporate average fuel economy requirement.

By 2011, an auto maker’s light-truck fleet will be subject to an overall average requirement of 24.1 mpg (9.8 L/100 km). The current requirement, for today’s more limited range of vehicles, is 21.6 mpg (10.9 L/100 km).

Going forward, requirements will be determined not by segment, but by “footprint” – wheelbase multiplied by track width. And loopholes such as the one exploited by Chrysler Group’s PT Cruiser are gone.

The retro-look cross/utility vehicle currently qualifies as a light truck because its seating configurations resemble that of a minivan, and it has a flat, truck-like load floor.

If the vehicle were still around in its current form five years from now, it would not be classified as a truck. And Chrysler would not be able to use its superior fuel efficiency to boost its light truck CAFE, a National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. spokesman says.

The new regulations “close loopholes that have long plagued the current system,” says Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.

“We worked hard to make sure that no single SUV gets a free pass under these new standards,” Mineta adds. “For some light trucks, the fuel-economy target will be 28.4 mpg (8.3 L/100 km), higher than today’s standard for passenger cars.”

Because of the footprint measurement, the number of standards is “almost infinite,” a NHTSA spokesman says. The smaller the footprint, the greater the CAFE requirement, and vice-versa.

At the low end, there are vehicles such as the Suzuki Grand Vitara cross/utility vehicle. With a footprint of 40.1 sq.-ft. (3.7 sq.-m), it would be required to achieve 28.6 mpg (8.2 L/100 km) in 2011.

At the high end, the Chevrolet Silverado pickup’s footprint of 72.4 sq.-ft. (6.7 sq.-m), would be required to achieve 21.8 mpg (10.8 L/100 km).

But critics feel Washington could have pushed the envelope further. Many heavy- and medium-duty pickups and vans have a gross vehicle weight rating within the range of inclusion to CAFE, but these vehicles remain excluded because they are used primarily for agricultural and commercial purposes.

As a result, only “a handful of the heaviest gas-guzzlers” will be subject to CAFE, says a Sierra Club statement.

“The technology exists today to make all new vehicles average 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) within 10 years,” says a Sierra Club spokesman. “The biggest single step we can take to save consumers money and curb our oil addiction and global warming pollution is to make all our cars, trucks and SUVs go farther on a gallon of gas.”

The 371-page NHTSA rule echoes this argument in its public comments section. Proponents of stricter, more comprehensive CAFE requirements note the effectiveness of technologies such as continuously variable transmissions and cylinder deactivation.

But NHTSA investigators say each new fuel-saving technology has its drawbacks. Cylinder deactivation is often incompatible with other efficient features such as variable valve timing. And CVTs cannot withstand high torque applications found in larger trucks.

The announcement comes as gasoline prices soar to levels nearly $0.40 higher than year-ago. The American Automobile Assn. says the national average price of a gallon of regular gas is $2.51, compared with $2.15 in March of 2005.

The all-time high of $3.06 was set last September.

“While AAA welcomes the news that the biggest SUVs, those over 8,500 lbs., will now be required to meet CAFE standards, the Administration missed a good opportunity to include large pickup trucks under CAFE,” says Robert Darbelnet, AAA’s president and CEO.

“The higher gas prices go, the more uncertain fuel supplies become. AAA believes more needs to be done and calls on the government to aspire to ambitious CAFE standards that will allow the U.S. to significantly improve fuel economy. AAA further urges manufacturers to continue using technologies that will enable even greater fuel economy gains, while not compromising vehicle safety.”

Easier said than done, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“These higher fuel economy standards will be a challenge, even with all the new

fuel-efficient technologies on sale today,” the lobby group says in a statement, noting auto makers already sell more than 100 vehicle models with fuel economy ratings of more than 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km).

Dealer Jerry Reynolds, president of Prestige Ford in Garland, TX, goes so far as to call the new standards “a non-issue.” So expect pickups and SUVs to remain popular as basic family transportation.

“SUV sales have been off. Big SUV sales have been off with gas prices fluctuating so greatly. But I think the market has sort of shook itself out into people who have to have vehicles that size. There’s a ton of those out there. They’ve got four or five kids. Or they carpool. They have a reason for driving it.”

Citing recent innovations such as Ford Motor Co.’s 3-valve cylinder heads and cylinder deactivation systems from General Motors Corp. and Chrysler, Reynolds adds: “I think they’re more ready for this than we know. They have got ways of keeping the horsepower, yet improving the fuel economy. We’ve seen so much of that over the past five years.

“The first manufacturer that puts a 6-cyl. under the hood of one the larger SUVs is just going to kill a bear.”

emayne@wardsauto.com