Left out of the Equation: The Driver

Posted Friday, Jul. 25, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Has the EPA found religion? Suddenly the agency seems concerned that the methods it uses for testing fuel efficiency on new cars and trucks sold in America may not reflect real-world driving conditions. It has come to this conclusion before and, in 2008, rewrote the rules on how manufacturers need to test vehicles for mileage. After that the federal agency recalculated the fuel efficiency of vehicles from long ago, in order to show that in previous decades vehicles were even less fuel efficient than we were once told.

Only now the EPA wants to go that move one better. Besides the static testing manufacturers do on new vehicles, the EPA is going to ask them also to do “real-world” road testing. In a nutshell, the EPA designed and monitors the fuel efficiency testing done on new vehicles for market. Yet it gets so many complaints from consumers that now it also wants these cars driven on real roads to make sure its own laboratory mileage claims are accurate.

To be fair, automakers often test their cars in real-world driving conditions, and their testing factors in wind resistance and other elements that could affect fuel efficiency. And I’m not the first reviewer to say that if one drives in a relatively intelligent fashion, one can easily beat the EPA highway figures for highway driving. But the EPA’s in-town mileage figures are almost impossible to hit, for numerous reasons.

No Construction, No Parking Either

The biggest reason we can’t duplicate most cars’ lab-tested “city” mileage is that none of us live in cities where the ground is perfectly level, like it is in the lab. Also, city stop lights and signs are typically placed fairly close together, which means we waste a lot of fuel going from 0 to 35 every third block, after stopping for the red lights. Then too, many people make short trips, often twice a day or more, instead of combining those trips.

Why combine them? Fewer cold starts: Until it achieves its proper running temperature, a cold engine delivers horrible gas mileage. Weather plays a part, too; on a cold winter day, it’s not unusual for a Honda Civic to get 8 mpg for the first four or five miles you drive it.

Another major difference between lab and real-world fuel efficiency is that the vast majority of drivers, not knowing or not realizing it, use too much pedal pressure, and, therefore, unnecessary gas, to either accelerate or maintain speed on the road. People who own advanced hybrid electrics, which have computer screens that show exactly what the engine is doing all the time so drivers can maximize their mileage, know exactly what I’m referring to here. They have taught themselves to use the lightest possible pedal pressure to achieve their desired speed.

The same is true for those who drive all-electric cars. Using light pedal pressure to get those cars up to speed can add 15 – 20 fewer miles’ range from a fully charged battery.

Therein lies one problem with the EPA’s saying it’s going to want real-world testing on cars to validate the mileage figures that its static tests show on the window sticker. The problem is that no car company is going to be foolish enough to simply pluck someone out of the back office to go out and drive their new model on the test track for a mileage test. Instead they will rely, as they always do, on their very professional drivers, who know exactly how to maximize the fuel efficiency of any given car or truck.

But that brings up a second problem. What happens if one of the car company’s professional drivers betters the EPA mileage figures for highway driving by 15 – 25 percent, like I can on most vehicles I review? Do they get to change the window sticker mileage to reflect that improved figure? Or take the case of the new Honda Accord hybrid electric — in which, over a 10-mile run, I got 56-mpg city, when the car is rated at only 50 mpg. Will the EPA let Honda ignore the static test results and use real-world mileage figures?

Who knows? Maybe they’ll be allowed to combine and average the two figures.

Fast Always Trumps Efficient

Then again, no matter what test EPA uses or requires, it will have nothing in common with driving in the real world with the rest of us. After all, Texas is considered a fairly flat state, but just a short trip east on I-30 proves that there’s nothing level about the ground our roads are built on.

Those who test vehicles for a living know that extremely hot or cold temperatures can dramatically alter a vehicle’s fuel efficiency. As can driving in a rainstorm — or not having your tires properly inflated. And if someone doesn’t have the maintenance done on their car or truck as the owner’s manual recommends, the vehicle’s long-term mileage drops significantly.

The fact is that the EPA lab test, as I’ve written before in this column, in no way approximates the real-world conditions we drive in. But bringing in a second test, using professional drivers on test tracks, won’t approximate real-world driving for the rest of us, either. I am reminded of a CBS Evening News story from years ago, in which someone was suing a car dealer and Honda because their Civic hybrid electric got only 34 miles to the gallon instead of the 41 mpg on the window sticker. That falls into the, “It’s never the driver, it’s always the car” mentality. Well, give me that very Honda Civic and I’ll show you how to get just 29 miles to the gallon in it — but I can also change my driving habits and get it to deliver 45 miles to the gallon.

This all makes one wonder why the EPA is wanting to go in this direction based on customers’ complaints about fuel efficiency. In this matter, maybe the EPA should send its inspectors here to Texas. Then they can watch everyone driving in the real world at 70 – 80 miles an hour, which drops their fuel efficiency by 30 – 35 percent, we could also remind them that these are the people complaining about fuel efficiency on EPA’s website.

I’ve gotten countless calls to my radio show over the years from people complaining about mileage, and the first question I ask them is whether they are driving at 80 miles an hour like the rest of us. Inevitably, they laugh and admit to it. Given the choice of vastly improved fuel efficiency or getting someplace as quickly as they can, speed wins out every time.

Test the Complaining Drivers

So: The EPA has a test they designed that does not deliver real-world results, typically overstating city mileage and understating highway mileage. And to that the agency wants to add a second test, which will be performed by professional drivers and so won’t deliver real-world results either.

But that agency is supposed to base its decisions on science. So, instead of assuming it’s always the automobile, and instead of taking the word of drivers that their gas mileage figures are completely wrong, maybe the EPA should test those drivers first.

The EPA has no legal control over how people drive or take care of their cars, but it does over manufacturers. One thing you can count on: A second test will never stop people from complaining about their mileage. And so the game continues.

© Ed Wallace 2014 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com

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