The problem was brought to a head in the past couple of years by drivers of new hybrid vehicles who complained to the EPA their vehicles were getting significantly lower mileage than their fuel-economy stickers indicated they would. Faced with a growing chorus of complaints, the EPA reacted by holding hearings last winter and collecting more than 3,000 comments from manufacturers, consumers and environmentalists. This week the EPA announced it was changing how it determines the miles-per-gallon estimates that appear on new vehicle window stickers.
The new standards will take effect in September 2007 for model year 2008 vehicles. The new rules may trim the city-driving mileage estimates of some vehicles by as much as 12%, EPA officials acknowledge. "EPA's new fuel economy sticker ensures American motorists won't be stuck with higher-than-anticipated charges at the pump," says EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. "Consumers can get more bang for their buck by considering fuel use while shopping for cars and trucks saving money on refueling costs while helping protect our environment."
Hybrids will be hit hardest because the new test eliminates some of the all-electric driving that helped them produce impressive results under the present system, the EPA conceded.
The EPA has relied on data from two laboratory tests designed in 1984 to determine the city and highway fuel economy estimates on the stickers even while real-world driving conditions across the U.S. changed over the past 22 years. The new calculations will include factors such as high speeds, aggressive acceleration, stop-and-go traffic, the use of air conditioning (which increases fuel consumption), as well driving in cold weather, which also reduces mileage.
Robert L. Darbelnet, president of the American Automobile Association (AAA), welcomed the changes to the fuel economy labeling process. "This is first and foremost a truth-in-advertising issue. Consumers deserve the government's best efforts when it comes to compiling the information they see on the label of new vehicles. That has not been the case and EPA is moving to correct the situation," he said in a statement praising the changes in the government stickers. "Purchasing a new vehicle is an expensive investment that consumers take very personally and make with great care," Darbelnet added. "We've known for a long time that existing EPA tests which produce the fuel economy numbers seen on the window stickers of new vehicles do not always reflect the performance of vehicles under real-world driving conditions."
Russell Long of Bluewater Network, a San Francisco-based environmental group that pushed the EPA to change the rules, said the new procedures should help motorists save money and reduce pollution.
Carmakers have so far had little to say about the new rules. "We don't know what the fuel economy numbers will be because of the EPA's new tests," says Chris Alaniz, chief engineer for the new Dodge and Chrysler minivans, due out next autumn.
The EPA is also altering the design and content of the window sticker. The new label will allow consumers to make more informed decisions when comparing the fuel economy of new vehicles. In addition to better fuel economy estimates, for the first time the EPA will be requiring fuel economy labeling of medium-duty vehicles, which are between 8,500 and 10,000 lbs., including large sport-utility vehicles and vans. Manufacturers will be required to post fuel economy labels on these vehicles beginning with the 2011 model year.
The new EPA rule, however, will have no bearing on the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) numbers the manufacturers provide the U.S. Department of Transportation. The CAFE rules require cars to get at least 27.5 miles per gallon, but the numbers are compiled in a different way from the numbers on the fuel-economy stickers.