Fuel Economy Fudge-Gate: An Update

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

There was troubling news at the end of last week, as Automotive News [sub]’s Rick Kranz reported that an unnamed automaker was quietly accusing another unnamed automaker of tweaking its EPA fuel economy tests, arguing

There’s a noticeable difference between the mpg number posted on some cars’ window sticker and an analysis of the data submitted by automakers to the EPA.

We’ve tried to get several automakers to comment on the accusation, but nobody wants to touch it. But, as we’ve looked into the issue, a few more details have surfaced that seem worth sharing. Hit the jump for the latest…

With such a serious accusation floating around, it was inevitable that AN [sub] would revisit the story (although technically the entire thing has been reported on AN’s blog, distinguishing it from a normally-reported news item). And sure enough, an update was posted yesterday by David Guilford, who writes

Over lunch recently with a former product executive for a major automaker, I asked if he thought anyone was fudging their numbers.

He said that he doubted that a company would out-and-out cheat. But then he smiled and said that, well, there are ways to game the system.

For instance, he said, his former employer used to test 50 vehicles of a given model, knowing that a normal bell-shape distribution of results would probably produce one outlier with higher mpg. Results from that car would be reported.

But — here’s the kicker — the automaker decided to stop playing games. Not because other automakers complained. Not because the feds were applying pressure.

No, the automaker discovered that it was angering its customers, who complained that their mpg didn’t match the sticker.

As I commented when we first reported the story, there seems to be something of a gentlemen’s agreement not to report suspected “fudging” of reported fuel economy numbers, as a number of models have a reputation for failing to achieve their claimed numbers (Chevy’s Equinox and Hyundai’s Elantra are the most common examples). And this attempt to close the barn door only reinforces that impression. By trotting out a convenient storyline in which market functions solve the problem of unrealistic EPA numbers (which has already stopped anyway), the industry seems to be closing ranks to keep out any nosy federal investigators. After all, if a thorough verification of EPA numbers were undertaken, who knows where the black eyes might end. The story also confirms that cheating is probably not egregious, although if there are systematic discrepancies between window sticker numbers and reality, the feds should still take measures to restore consumer trust in the EPA’s numbers regardless of how those discrepancies got there.

Meanwhile, the main mystery of the story, the question of who precisely is accusing who, remains unanswered. And given Guileford’s conciliatory walk-back post (not to mention the industry’s considerable incentive to let this episode blow over), we’ll likely never know what the real story here is. But there’s a pretty clear consensus on the prime suspects, and like any good whodunnit, the investigation begins with a look at motive. Ford and Hyundai have been very publicly feuding for the fuel economy leadership halo, making them something like the beneficiaries of a freshly-changed will in an Agatha Christie novel. In fact, a look back at AN [sub]’s blog archives yields yet more evidence that could shed light on a number of aspects of this mystery.

AN [sub]’s cub reporter assigned to Ford (and Porsche’s dream reviewer), Jamie LaRue set the stage for Kranz’s piece over a week ago, when she blogged:

Hyundai Motors Co. promotes that its redesigned Elantra earns 40 mpg on the highway. This must vex Ford Motor Co.

Ford’s redesigned Focus gets 38 mpg highway — unless a buyer opts for the SFE package (40 mpg).

Since the arrival of CEO Alan Mulally in 2006, Ford has set out to be the fuel economy leader in every segment. That’s why Hyundai’s claim must be especially irksome.

So by gosh, Ford is going to prove that it is the leader regardless of what window stickers or advertisements say.

Well, by gosh, how did they do it?

During a media drive event at Ford’s proving grounds in Romeo, Mich., this week, Ford engineers had each reporter drive the Elantra at 45 mph around a 2.5 mile course. The same reporter was then asked to drive the Focus (not the SFE model) at the same speed around the same course. All conditions with the cars were equal, except for the drivers. An engineer in the backseat of each car monitored the fuel economy each earned.

After dozens of reporters drove the vehicles, the data was calculated and the results were in. The average fuel economy earned by our group driving the Focus was 40.4 mpg versus the Elantra’s average of 37.8 mpg.

Read all about it in Motor Trend’s December issue (published in October). Wait, hang on… what was this supposed to prove again? “Ford Focus: Optimized For 45 MPH Cruising” is not a particularly snappy tagline. Help us out, Jamie!

So Ford proved its point to a group of automotive journalists.

What did it accomplish? Not sure.

But, hey, I’m writing about it.

Actually Jamie, you’re blogging about it. Because writing those facts as a news item would get you a good laughing-at from all but the worst editors. Luckily there’s the old blog, where meaningless propaganda from the company you’re covering needn’t be judged by the harsh standards of “professional journalism.”

Speaking of which, is there anyone still reading this who doesn’t believe Ford is accusing Hyundai of manipulating EPA numbers? Outside of the accusing company itself, only the folks AN [sub] knows for sure what’s going on here… and they’re already walking back the story, regardless of how painfully obvious it is. But hey, thus far the story has yet to make the sacred leap from mere “blog item” to hallowed “news item,” so it doesn’t actually reflect on anyone’s credibility. Nobody even needs to ask Ford why they aren’t willing to put on some man pants and make a real accusation if they want to make an accusation. The whole story can be safely ignored now, as the professionals who started it all are ready to get back to some “real journalism.”

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Volt 230 Volt 230 on Sep 05, 2011

    When was the last time someone drove between cities or town at 45 mph?. Even on secondary roads, the normal speed is 55 to 60.

    • See 3 previous
    • Mazder3 Mazder3 on Sep 05, 2011

      @mazder3 Or try going from the Maine coast to the Monadnock Region on Labor Day. Gotta love Routes 4, 9 and 202. The main east-west corridor in NH is a two-laner with few opportunities to pass due to the massive amount of traffic. Still funny that the slowest bits (35mph in a 55) were on I-93 'cause there was a Statie in the median and on I-95 over the Piscataqua River. F'n lookie-loos.

  • Philadlj Philadlj on Sep 06, 2011

    This is NOT meant as a sarcastic stab at Chevy or GM, but I feel like it's a pertinent question: has anyone out there been able to reach 32 mpg on the highway in an Equinox, or driven 600 miles on a single tank, as its initial marketing insisted? Here's Ed's Feb. '10 article about it: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/02/why-the-chevy-equinox-epa-mileage-numbers-dont-add-up/

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