When You Want Real Progress, Set a Realistic Goal

The miles per gallon (mpg) efficiency for an automobile makers’ cars is gauged against the EPA’s efficiency standards.  Different standards apply to each model of car and truck because the vehicle size (wheelbase multiplied by track) establishes the EPA efficiency target, and the standards increase over time at a torrid pace.

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard for cars will jump from 27.5 mpg in 2010 up to a 54.5 mpg average in 2025.  Only today’s Toyota Prius, Toyota Prius C, and the Honda Accord Hybrid beat the 2025 car standard for mpg.  Another twenty of today’s cars fall short of that standard.

The Subaru XV Crosstreck Hybrid, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, and the BMW X5 335d beat the 2021 mpg target for trucks, but another eighteen of today’s trucks fall short of the 2021 standard.

There is a lot of engineering redevelopment to be done for the fleets to meet the required averages in 2021 and 2025, most likely as hybrid and three-cylinder vehicles.

The EPA also tests for compliance with its many emissions standards for contaminants such as nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons.  Since the 1970s, some automobile makers have adopted tactics that will alter engine emissions when the engine is being scrutinized for emissions.  Some manufacturers claim the tactics improve fuel economy or protect the engine during harsh conditions, but the EPA sees those excuses as a bid to defeat its emissions testing by causing misleading results.

To date, the mpg and emission scores for cars and trucks have been widely mishandled, misstated and miscalculated.  Some cases appear fraudulent.

Volkswagen has admitted it used a “defeat device” that engaged during testing and faces a fine of $4 billion plus reimbursement of about $20 billion to buyers of its diesel vehicles that were equipped with a defeat device.  Fiat and Chrysler face similar allegations in the US.  In Europe, some models from Renault, Nissan, Hyundai, Citroen, Fiat and Volvo have produced emission test results, suggesting they are equipped with a cheat device or cheating software.

In Japan, Mitsubishi produced cars whose actual mpg rating was manipulated to a better result and that falsified economy figure was used in cars it produced for Nissan.  Hyundai and Kia misstated the mpg efficiency on 1.2 million of their cars and they were fined $100 million in the US.   Not to be outdone, Suzuki announced that it had miscalculated the mpg numbers for 2.1 million of its vehicles.

GM admitted that mpg ratings on 60,000 new SUVs were too high by 1 to 2 mpg.  Ford announced it would reduce the mileage rating on six new models, most of them hybrids.  The decrease in claimed mpg rating affected 200,000 Ford cars in the US.

Auto makers have been playing 3-card monte with fuel economy and emissions reporting since the early 1970s, but the practice reached a crescendo after 2010. As noted earlier, the CAFE standards for 2010 will double by 2025.  That rate of increase is a consequence of environmental politics rather than engineering prowess.

There are clear lessons from a post mortem of these mpg and emissions deceptions.  First, businesses should not deceive government about feasibility and performance, even if government demands something just because it appeals politically.  Second, when demanding someone else achieve a technical result, you cannot assume it’s feasible just because you read it in yesterday’s talking point memo.  Physical results come from a much different real world process than do slick speeches.

Unless automakers emphasize hybrids, 3-cylinder or electric cars and convince consumers that those are worth buying, automakers face the unrealistic challenge of squeezing an extra 4.7% per annum efficiency out of engines that have been already been squeezed juiceless.  Hybrids and electrics have a market niche but too many consumers they seem overpriced for the performance they deliver.

If manufacturers cannot hit the EPA targets and consumers are unwilling to play the EPA’s game, perhaps the EPA needs to amend its targets to something that can be achieved.  The world would not fall apart.

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