The average fuel efficiency of the nation’s cars and trucks hit a 22-year low of 20.4 miles per gallon during the 2002 model year, the U.S. EPA announced last week. That statistic stands in stark contrast to significant improvements in other automotive areas: Since 1981, average horsepower has increased 93 percent and average acceleration (as measured in the time it takes to go from zero to 60 miles per hour) has improved 29 percent. Environmentalists saw the report as a sign that fuel economy will not improve until the government mandates it, something the current administration is loath to do. The industry begs to differ, claiming that the answer lies in better technology and noting that fuel-efficient models are not as popular among consumers as more gas-intensive ones. Together, cars and light trucks are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. oil consumption and one-fifth of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions.