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White House Touts Auto Industry Success As New Fuel Economy Standards Loom

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President Obama stands with the Opel Ampera, the European version of the advanced hybrid Chevy Volt.
President Obama stands with the Opel Ampera, the European version of the advanced hybrid Chevy Volt.

The White House will host a three-hour conference Wednesday to tout what it calls the "innovative success story" of the auto industry's clean cars, advanced technology and job growth as the government prepares to adopt stricter fuel economy standards.

The event will focus on the economic impact of creating clean car technology, including electric cars, according to an invitation obtained by The Huffington Post and first reported in the Detroit News. The event will include senior administration officials and two panels of representatives from auto suppliers and non-profits, including Clean Cities-Atlanta. Representatives from GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda and Toyota are expected to attend as well.

"We hope to spotlight the stories of citizens across the country that represent President Obama's vision of out-innovating, and out-manufacturing the rest of the world through projects and initiatives that move their communities forward," the invitation reads. The event is closed to the media.

The auto industry bailout has become a hot political issue in the 2012 presidential election, with President Barack Obama and Republican contender Mitt Romney both taking credit for the industry's revival. Romney opposed the U.S. bailout of G.M. and Chrysler and wrote a 2008 op-ed in The New York Times headlined, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

The candidates will have another big opportunity to disagree in a few weeks, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency finalize new fuel economy standards that will double mileage requirements to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The agencies have said they'd adopt the new rulings in July.

Republicans often argue that consumers, not the government, should decide the fuel economy of vehicles they want to drive.

The automakers have not publicly fought the fuel economy measure and signed letters in May 2009 that they would commit to the president's standards. But many in the industry wonder how they'll meet such aggressive targets. Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman for the website Edmunds.com, said the automakers will meet targets for the next few years without a problem. Automakers need to average 34.1 mpg by 2016 to meet the new targets.

"It is later in the decade when things get murky," Anwyl said. "When I talk to senior car company execs, no one is pretending to have any idea how the standards will be met. There is vague talk about energy storage devices, or perhaps hopes of a breakthrough on battery technology. But no one can really say."

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards were designed in the 1970s, following the oil crisis in 1973. The standards required that automakers meet a fuel economy figure for its entire fleet of cars sold during one year.

The rules have had unintended consequences. The boom of large SUVs, like the Hummer, have been blamed on CAFE standards. That's because heavy trucks -- the Hummer's weight was closer to a FedEx delivery truck than a car -- were exempt from the rules. With cheap gasoline, sales of luxury SUVs and pickups soared.

In recent years, after gas prices topped $4 a gallon in 2008, customers have naturally turned to more fuel-efficient cars. Jim Farley, Ford's head of global marketing, said last week that fuel efficiency has become the top issue for most buyers.

"Everyone wants better efficiency," and if a car doesn't get good fuel economy, people won't buy it, Farley said. That's a huge switch from just five years ago, when people could be swayed to buy a guzzler with a nicer stereo or heated leather seats.

Wednesday's event may be an attempt to send the president's message that higher fuel economy standards are good for the economy and the country.

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