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Fuel Economy Ratings: Myth vs Reality

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On: Wed, Jul 17, 2013 at 5:44PM | By: Bill Wilson

Fuel Economy Ratings: Myth vs Reality

For much of the car-buying public, the news was shocking. To the thousands of Kia and Hyundai owners who had filed complaints for well over two years, however, it came as a long-awaited relief. In November of 2012 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that the two automakers had long been misrepresenting fuel economy results for most of its models, in some cases by as much as six miles a gallon.

In a massive settlement that hit the firms where they live, company officials agreed to reimburse nearly one million buyers for money lost due to the inaccurate claims. Hyundai’s spokespeople blamed the misrepresentations on “procedural errors,” a suitably vague term for what amounts to false advertising on a global scale.

The scandal shed light on a problem that has long plagued car buyers: the difference between miles per gallon (MPG) ratings as stated in advertisements and those experienced by drivers in the real world. To shed some light on the issue, here’s a look at some misconceptions about fuel economy claims, followed by the truth.

Myth # 1: the EPA tests vehicles itself
Per federal law, automakers may use only gas mileage claims that are approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. This has led many consumers to conclude that the federal agency actually performs the tests the claims are based upon. In reality, however, the companies themselves conduct the tests, in accordance with procedures dictated by Uncle Sam. They then report their findings to the agency, which accepts the findings based on what amounts to an “honor system.”

While federal inspectors conduct spot checks of vehicles to try to catch cheaters, as a whole MPG ratings are based entirely on manufacturer claims, which may or may not have been verified by outside sources.

Myth # 2: When it comes to MPG, driving habits don’t matter much
Despite volumes of evidence to the contrary, there are still people who believe this claim. Millions of others think that the only issue affecting fuel economy is the well-known city/highway factor. This is far from the truth, though. Dozens of variables added together determine how many MPG a car gets. These include:
• How fast the driver accelerates.
• How hilly the terrain is.
• How warm or cold the outside temperature is.
• The condition of the road surface.
• How often the driver switches lanes.
• The amount of air pressure in the tires.
• The amount of ethanol in the gasoline being burned.

As stated before, each of these factors by itself has only a small effect on fuel economy. For example, ethanol in gasoline reduces MPG by only around 2%. Taken together, however, these small differences have a huge impact in how far a vehicle can get on a given amount of petroleum.

Myth # 3: Improving technology will create cars that get amazing fuel economy
This belief is based on the obvious fact that science has transformed the world in the past 100 years. However, as good as scientists are at coming up with new things, one feat they will probably never accomplish is rewriting the laws of nature. The rules of chemistry and physics put limits on how much energy can be obtained from liquid fuel, and this means the world will most likely never see cars that get 500 miles to the gallon.

Followers of automotive technology are probably shaking their heads, thinking about cutting-edge vehicles like VW’s XL1, which can go as far as 265 miles on a gallon of diesel, and the Elio, which supposedly gets 84 MPG. But, to obtain these ratings, the makers of these models have had to sacrifice features that most drivers would be unwilling to do without. For example, each vehicle can only carry two persons. Plus, they are dreadfully underpowered, even by economy car standards. Barring an unforeseen revolution in energy technology (always a possibility), chances are that 50 MPG or so is as good as it will get for cars that the average person is willing to buy.

The bottom line
Despite their shortcomings, the EPA-regulated MPG claims are, overall, fairly good ballpark estimations. That being said, car buyers should use them as general guidelines only, not as hard-and-fast statements. In the end, consumers themselves have the most influence over how much they spend on gasoline, and that is no myth.


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