Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is postponing a congressionally mandated increase in the fines for auto companies that do not comply with stringent federal fuel-efficiency standards.

The penalty for auto companies that failed to meet the higher emission standards for vehicles made since the 2015 model year was scheduled to increase from $5.50 for each one-tenth of a mile-per-gallon their average fuel economy falls short of the standard for a model year to $14 for each one-10th of a mile-per-gallon under a law that was passed that year. That penalty would be multiplied by the total number of cars in automakers’ fleets sold in that model year.

NHTSA said Wednesday that is postponing the implementation of the mpg fine increase until the 2019 model year at the request of groups that lobby for automakers in Washington.

NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas said in an email that agency has determined that automakers had largely completed compliance plans and vehicle design decisions for vehicles to be produced through model year 2018 before July 5, 2016, the date NHTSA issued its interim final rule proposing the timing of the increase in penalties.

“Therefore increasing penalties for non-compliance before model year 2019 vehicles likely would not result in increased compliance or improved fuel economy,” Thomas said.

The new emission standards, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), began to take effect with the 2017 model year after an initial increase in requirements that ran from 2012-16. They call for ramping up from the current fleet-wide average of about 34 miles per gallon for cars and trucks that were required in 2016 to an eventual goal of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

The increase, which some automakers have said might be too ambitious, starts with a rise to an average of over 35 miles per gallon for the 2017 models that already are being rolled out.

The emission standards start with a rise to an average of over 35 miles per gallon for 2017 models. The mileage rules call for automakers to achieve a fleetwide average mileage rate of more than 36 miles per gallon for cars and trucks in 2018.

The standard then increases to more than 37 miles per gallon in 2019 and nearly 39 miles per gallon in 2020, which is before automakers will have a chance to weigh in on the need for any course corrections. By 2021, automakers will be required to hit a combined average of 41 miles per gallon for their cars and trucks.

The rules for the model years between 2022 and 2025 are subject to a congressionally mandated review that was scheduled to take place in 2018. Automakers have pushed President-elect Donald Trump to roll back the requirements in the later years or address inconsistencies between the DOT rules and concurrent greenhouse gas emission rules that being enacted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has moved to finalize its version of the emission rules before Trump takes office, however.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for U.S. automakers in Washington, said Wednesday that it “welcomes the news that NHTSA has decided to delay the imposition of higher civil penalties for noncompliance in the CAFE program.

“The sudden raising of these fines by almost a three-fold magnitude meant some automakers faced potentially large fines, and since some fines were retroactive, automakers could do nothing to moderate these costs, which eventually flow to consumers,” the group said in a statement that was provided to The Detroit News.

“The NHTSA announcement delays imposition of the increased levels, providing time to manage this aspect of the program as fuel economy requirements continue to increase dramatically,” the auto alliance continued. “It also affords time for NHTSA to consider the petition submitted by the Alliance to reduce the inconsistencies between the NHTSA and EPA fuel economy programs.”

The auto alliance and other car industry groups have accused the Obama administration of trying to ram the stringent gas mileage rules through before Trump has a chance to potentially repeal the regulation.

The transportation department has tried to steer clear of the dustup between the EPA and the auto industry. The agency said Wednesday that it also approved a petition from the auto alliance and The Association of Global Automakers, which represents international auto manufacturers, that calls for the agency to “look for ways to further harmonize the CAFE program with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions program.”

NHTSA said it “plans to evaluate issues raised in the petition in conjunction with analysis leading up to its upcoming rulemaking to set CAFE standards for model years 2022 and beyond, or in a separate rulemaking.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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