With gasoline going for $2 per gallon this summer and Middle East turmoil driving oil prices toward $40 a barrel, it's not surprising that energy was a hot topic in this year's presidential campaign. But America's energy policy seems to depend on whether you're behind the wheel or relaxing at home.

At least that's my take after a couple items in the newspaper recently caught my eye. One discussed how the Department of Energy has proposed standards to make refrigerators and air conditioners up to 30% more energy efficient. The other noted that according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the overall fuel economy of U.S. vehicles continues on a steady decline that has been underway since the 1980s.

It's amazing that two major industries can be headed down paths that are so fundamentally different.

The DOE proposal, affecting central airconditioning systems and heat pumps, would have the units operate on par with today's models while consuming 20 to 30% less electricity. It's part of an ongoing push by the Department to raise the energy efficiency of many home appliances, including water heaters, refrigerators, and room air conditioners.

According to DOE, the proposed standards are expected to save 1.5 quadrillion Btu of energy by 2020. This is enough energy to avoid the need for 31 large, 400-MW power plants and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.5 million metric tons.

The standards would raise the price of new units by several hundred dollars, which would be partially offset by lower electric bills. Boosting prices for these appliances could put them beyond the reach of some people. But society benefits by cutting air pollution, fuel use, and the strain in power-generating capacity. All in all, it seems like a sensible idea.

Contrast this with automotive efficiency. The Dept. of Transportation's Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were supposed to push automakers to improve mileage and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But federal fuel-economy standards for passenger cars haven't increased at all since 1985 and are up only marginally for light trucks. With automakers given little incentive to boost mileage while selling more trucks and SUVs than ever, overall fuel economy is lower now (24.5 mpg) than in 1981 (24.6 mpg). The automakers like to talk about their work on leading-edge innovations such as electric vehicles, hybrids, and fuel-cell technology. But they don't seem to be in any great hurry to put them to widespread use. BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Fiat, Ford/Mazda, General Motors, Land Rover, Porsche, Volkswagen, and Volvo probably will fail to meet the 1999 CAFE standards for cars or trucks. However, because they can offset noncompliance with either past or future credits, they may dodge substantial civil penalties. For instance, Land Rover — maker of this year's worst-in-class Range Rover, rated at 12 mpg city, 15 highway — paid a $68 fine in 1999. Automakers and groups such as the Coalition for Vehicle Choice lobby against government fuel-economy rules, arguing that consumers want larger vehicles, not compacts that consume less gasoline. But there's no good reason why vehicles large and small can't be more efficient.

Few SUV owners, for instance, require maximum torque, horsepower, and pay-load capacity, or drive their vehicles off-road. Most everyone else seems to be more interested in a good view of the road, a car-like ride, and amenities such as cupholders and a decent sound system. Automakers could boost fuel economy in most vehicles by a couple mpg without any serious technical innovation. Instead they market cars and trucks that each year are heavier, have bigger engines, and get worse mileage.

Even slightly better mileage would save millions of barrels of oil and bring environ-mental benefits and savings at the pump. It wouldn't hurt national security and our economic well being, either.

We've seen this before with seat belts, air bags, and emission controls. Carmakers have the wherewithal to develop more-efficient technologies, and they certainly have the engineering and marketing talent to design and promote such vehicles. It seems they just need an incentive. Maybe it's time for a little government prodding once again.