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Mileage inflation sparks EPA scrutiny of carmaker claims 

Watch TV for more than an hour in prime time; pick up a newspaper or magazine; or check the ads that pop up while you’re searching the Web.  Odds are you’re bombarded with ads pitching the latest fuel economy numbers from one manufacturer or another.

“Mileage has become the number one concern of American motorists,” Ford Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields noted earlier this year.

But are those numbers valid? That’s the question motorists – and regulators – are left wondering in the wake of the revelation, last week, that Korean makers Hyundai and Kia had inflated their own mileage figures by as much as 6 mpg on 13 separate models. The Environmental Protection Agency is apparently getting ready to review other makers’ mileage claims. Meanwhile, even numbers that meet government scrutiny are coming under question because of the way the industry is promoting mileage in advertising.

The EPA, which oversees fuel economy testing and sets rules for how the results may be listed by manufacturers, underscored the significance of the Korean mileage scandal by noting only two other products have been found to use false mileage claims since the beginning of the millennium.

But has the industry generally lived up to the rules – or have regulators simply been lax in enforcement of guidelines that allow automakers to influence the final figures shown on their so-called Munroney window stickers and used in prime time advertising?

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That’s apparently a question the EPA is now asking itself.  The agency noted that the audit that snared Hyundai and Kia is part of “an ongoing investigation,” hinting that the figures used by other makers will now face close scrutiny.

“This is the first time where a large number of vehicles from the same manufacturer have deviated so significantly,” announced the EPA in reference to the problem at Hyundai and Kia – which will now see the makers forced to restate mileage for 900,000 vehicles sold in the U.S. since 2010.

The Koreans have also promised to reimburse owners for their extra fuel costs in the form of debit cards that will be issued once a year. Meanwhile, several officials at Hyundai and Kia confirmed the likelihood that the revised mileage numbers, ranging from 1 to 6 mpg, may result in lower residuals and trade-in values. That, in turn, could lead to lawsuits by owners seeking reimbursement for likely losses.

The two makers responded quickly to the EPA announcement last week, issuing mea culpas and promising to stand behind consumers who purchased the affected vehicles.

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In a teleconference with journalists, officials tried to explain what happened once Hyundai revised its own mileage testing approach in 2010.  “There are hundreds of different parameters that can affect” the results, said Sung-Hwan Cho, president of the research and development operation shared by the two automakers. To make it more efficient and consistent, he added, “We (added a) few more steps and (processes), which is different from what EPA has generally recommended, so that’s where this errors – procedure errors happened.”

Hyundai’s problems were not entirely unexpected. The automaker’s fuel economy claims have been questioned by a number of automotive reviewers. And the numbers were often criticized by a group called Consumer Watchdog – which Hyundai until now had dismissed as inaccurate.

But the manufacturer isn’t alone.  At a time when fuel economy figures seem to be climbing rapidly, even as makers also claim sharp gains in horsepower and performance, there are growing concerns about the accuracy of such assertions.

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Part of the problem is that, “We do a lot to ensure we get the best numbers possible out of the EPA tests,” said a senior industry engineer asking not to be identified by name or company since he spoke without permission.

The EPA uses a rigid testing procedure that requires specific stops and starts.  The rate of acceleration from a stop is clearly defined, as is the amount of time used to simulate city and highway driving. Makers can readily duplicate those procedures and, with the power trains in today’s cars all controlled by microcomputers, a maker can program the system to maximize mileage when driven in the manner used for EPA testing.

Ford has come under fire for problems with the PowerShift transmission in small cars like the Focus and Fiesta, in part, it admits, because it tuned the gearbox to deliver maximum mileage while sacrificing driving comfort.

Such actions are usually acceptable to the EPA. What would get an automaker in trouble is testing vehicles that have been tweaked differently than the production version of the same cars or trucks – or supplying the EPA with false data, as happened with Hyundai and Kia.

Even if federal investigators determine the Koreans were unique, and that other automakers have played by the rules, the debate over fuel economy will likely continue. For one thing, critics contend the EPA test itself isn’t necessarily a valid reflection of the real world.  Indeed, the agency occasionally tweaks the process to make sure it reflects what motorists will actually get. That happened just a few years ago when it became apparent that hybrids were routinely getting excessively high EPA ratings.

The other issue that critics cite is the way manufacturers advertise mileage.  It’s become common to hear numbers of more than 40 mpg for compact sedans, and even midsize models are nudging up to the 38 mpg mark, figures reserved for hybrids just a few years ago.

But makers typically only promote highway mileage ratings while ignoring the city number. For most motorists, the combined figure would more accurately reflect what to expect in daily use.

“We have to be competitive,” and that means advertising the biggest number, Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik told prior to last week’s revelations. But he’s not alone. While most industry officials admit that the figures they advertise overstate real world expectations, they say they can’t switch unilaterally. Without the government stepping in, the optimistic highway numbers will continue to be the ones used in the headlines.