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EPA weighs new fuel ratings
Automakers wary of buyer sticker shock with lower, but more accurate mileage
Jeff Plungis
Detroit News

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing changes to the way it calculates fuel economy ratings posted on new cars and trucks to better reflect real-world driving conditions.

The review, which comes as concerns rise over escalating oil prices, could result in lower posted fuel economy ratings and potentially impact sales of profitable but gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs.

Since the EPA last adjusted the formula for estimating vehicle fuel economy in 1984, highway speed limits have been raised and urban sprawl has created longer, more congested commutes.

Environmental groups argue that the actual fuel economy for today’s vehicles can be as much as 34 percent lower than the city and highway ratings posted on the windows of new cars and trucks.

“Consumers are paying about $200 to $300 more each year for gasoline than the labels indicate may be required,” said Russell Long, executive director of San Francisco-based Bluewater Network, which petitioned the government in June 2002 to look at changes.

The EPA isn’t proposing any specific changes yet. For now, regulators are seeking comments from automakers, motorists and others about real-world driving experiences. Any modifications likely wouldn’t occur until six months to a year after the comment period ends on July 27.

The EPA isn’t proposing any specific changes yet. For now, regulators are seeking comments from automakers, motorists and others about real-world driving experiences. Any modifications likely wouldn’t occur until six months to a year after the comment period ends on July 27.

The EPA’s decision to review the way it calculates the ratings comes during a delicate period for automakers. Gasoline prices have climbed to record highs in Michigan and other states, and there is growing alarm about America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Detroit’s automakers generate a large percentage of their revenues and profits from the sale of SUVs and pickup trucks, and a change in the way the EPA calculates fuel economy ratings could impact sales.

Any modifications triggered by the EPA’s review, however, will not result in new federal mandates for more fuel efficient vehicles, officials said.

The EPA is not considering changes to the laboratory tests it uses to set values for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program that establishes fuel efficiency standards for major automakers. That program, administered by the Department of Transportation using EPA figures, penalizes automakers who do not achieve minimum average fuel economy targets across their car and truck lineup. In 2004, individual automakers’ cars must average 27.5 mpg, and light trucks must average 20.7 mpg.

The CAFE calculations cannot change, said Chris Grundler, deputy director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality in Ann Arbor. The lab procedure was set in statute in a 1975 law. It can only be changed by Congress.

EPA ratings already caution that actual mileage will vary based on vehicle equipment, driving conditions, driving habits and a vehicle’s condition. And to help consumers comparison shop, the ratings include a fuel economy range for other similar vehicles.

But to critics like Bluewater’s Long, that’s the easy way out.

The Bluewater Network published a report in October 2002 that said in real-world driving conditions, U.S. cars would average closer to 18 mpg, not the 24 mpg EPA tests suggested.

Michael Flynn, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan, said it hurts auto companies when consumers’ actual fuel economy doesn’t match what is posted on the sticker. He contends that consumers blame the manufacturer, not the EPA, and they often feel cheated when they get the car home.

“In the long run, this will be good for the manufacturers,” Flynn said. “In the short term, there may be a brief period of fuel economy sticker shock.”

For their part, auto industry officials dispute that the difference between the fuel economy ratings on EPA stickers and real-world driving is as dramatic as some environmentalists assert. They contend the current EPA ratings provide consumers with an effective, objective tool to choose between competing models.

Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group for Detroit’s Big Three and other automakers, said it’s impossible to provide precise fuel economy ratings, given the range of climates and driving habits across the United States.

“The numbers on the stickers are generally reliable estimates of what a consumer’s mileage may be,” Shosteck said. “It’s just like the sticker says, ‘Actual mileage may vary.’ I personally have exceeded the mileage on the sticker.”

The EPA’s comment period has already drawn a range of opinions from motorists across the country.

Martin Collinson, a high school science teacher in Asheboro, N.C., is one of hundreds who have already posted comments on the EPA’s Web site.

He said his class became interested in fuel economy after studying gasoline-electric hybrid cars. His students wanted to test Toyota Motor Co.p.’s claim that its hybrid Prius gets better mileage in the city than the highway. There was no way to independently verify the EPA estimate.

In his own family, Collinson said there is a wide difference between the mileage he and his wife achieve with a 2002 Land Rover Discovery SUV. With careful driving, Collinson says he can get close to the EPA estimate of 13 mpg in the city and 17 mpg on the highway. His wife gets 2 mpg less.

“She has a lead foot,” Collinson said. “I kind of baby it.”

John Stumpf, a retired psychologist in Elmhurst, Ill., has kept careful track of his fuel economy and thinks the labels need to be more accurate. If automakers are eventually required to post lower fuel economy ratings, he hopes it will prompt automakers to improve fuel efficiency across the board.

“I’m for higher mileage in all vehicles, not just small cars,” Stumpf said. “You need bigger cars to carry families. Just to make them smaller and littler and lighter isn’t going to work.”

Automakers are not saying much yet. They plan to submit formal comments later this summer. But some officials question the motivations of the Bluewater Network.

The California group advocates higher federal CAFE standards. And it has publicly criticized Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford Jr. for backing away from a pledge to boost the fuel economy of the automaker’s SUV lineup 25 percent by 2005.

“They have their own agenda,” Shosteck said. “They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing this because they would like to see more vehicles fall out of compliance with CAFE.”

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