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Is EPA’s Electric Car Mileage Standard Bogus?

How do you figure miles per gallon on a battery car?

by on Aug.12, 2009

About 80 Volts will be hand-built at PPO and undergo a series of road, crash and other engineering validation tests before production begins in the plant later next year.

About 80 Volts will be hand-built and undergo validation tests before production begins later next year.

Two hundred thirty miles a gallon – 230!

That’s what the EPA figures an owner will get behind the wheel of the new Chevrolet Volt.  It’s a mind-boggling number, and one you’ll likely hear repeated often enough from General Motors as it tries to rebuild its reputation. Why wouldn’t it become their new mantra?

Not to be outdone, Nissan is now weighing in, claiming that the new federal fuel-efficiency test rates its Leaf electric car at 367 mpg!  Sounds almost too good to be true?

It just might be.

GM officials, meanwhile, are promising that, if charged up at off-peak hours, their new Volt could run its 40 miles on battery power for just 40 cents.  Using the same calculations, it would cost just a dollar for Leaf to hit its 100 mile range.  Compared to what you’d spend on gasoline, these are veritable bargains.

Or are they?

It’s certainly not unusual for politicians to play fast and loose with numbers. And it might be expected from an industry that has made it hard for customers to comparison shop and figure out how much to pay for a car. But the numbers being thrown about over new proposed automotive fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards are so convoluted, and appear so far from what people see in real world use  that – eventually – a public furor could ensue.

Take GM’s claim yesterday that the Chevrolet Volt will get 230 mpg in the city. It’s not that GM is being dishonest. The beleaguered company is looking for any marketing advantage to stop a disastrous sales slump, and the feds have apparently given them one.  The question is whether the new measurement system the EPA has devised is valid or just a bunch of hooey.

The problem is that the new standard hasn’t been formally published, and likely won’t be fully locked into law until the end of the year, at the earliest.  So, for the moment, we can only wonder whether it is making assumptions that might not be credible.

The EPA methodology uses kilowatt hours per 100 miles traveled to define the electrical efficiency of plug-ins. Applying EPA’s methodology, GM expects the Volt to consume as little as 25 kilowatt hours per 100 miles in city driving. At the U.S. average cost of electricity (approximately 11 cents per kWh), a typical Volt driver would pay about $2.75 for electricity to travel 100 miles, or less than 3 cents per mile. But how much electricity does the Volt need to recharge its batteries if a customer completely discharges them by driving more than 100 miles?

The real problem in this latest number barrage started with the obfuscation around President Obama’s energy policy. Here there is enough blame to spread around among auto industry lobbyists, Democratic and Republican politicians, and government regulatory bodies that the finger pointing can go on for years when – or  if  — voters ultimately realize what’s going on.

Take for example the Administration’s claim originally supplied to media on background that the new energy policy was the equivalent of “taking 177 million cars off the road.” The assumptions used to get to that number were never provided, and in the speech actually delivered the next day it was changed to the equivalent of “58 million cars off the road for an entire year.”

Really? That’s a huge difference.

Then came this claim: “in the next five years, we’re seeking to raise fuel-economy standards to an industry average of 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016, an increase of more than eight miles per gallon per vehicle.”

The administration said this would save 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline over the lifetime of the vehicles sold, with a projected reduction of approximately 900 million metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions.

The only problem with this is that the mileage used to figure compliance with EPA standards isn’t remotely near the mileage that you will find on the EPA sticker when you go to purchase a new vehicle. Where did this number come from?

This, of course, is not a new problem, and EPA has been adjusting the sticker so that customers see something close to the published numbers. The real issue will arise if people actually think there will be a lot of cars for sale in 2016 that actually get 35.5 mpg. It seems that a car can now be certified for an EPA CAFE rating of 40 MPG with an actual mileage of 30 MPG. That’s a huge swing. And if you’re basing your energy policy on saving 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline based on a fictitious 40 mpg when the actual in use figure is 25% lower, then the whole thing is a sham.

But of course we can’t know for sure, since the actual rules of the game haven’t been published. And how the upcoming generation of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are labeled is still unknown. Volt at 230? Nissan Leaf at 367 mpg, which will reach the U.S. retail market in 2012?

It looks to me like the core issue is what will the customer actually sees versus what the label says. Not a new issue and we predict it will once again come to the forefront —  if the past is predictor of the future.

One easy change would be to go to gallons/100 miles and kWh/100 miles so people get a better understand of actual energy use and quickly calculate in their heads what they are paying for mileage at the pump or plug.

Automakers and EPA are discussing this right now, but the result is months off. For electric cars key numbers are miles/kWh, and how many kWh hours it will take to recharge the batteries when they are fully discharged. Then you have to add in the fuel cost for the engine that is needed to give electric cars something more than 40 miles in range on batteries. And, do you ignore the high initial cost of a plug-in hybrid to begin with, when comparing a fuel-efficient gasoline-power car that doesn’t have a second motor, power electronics and all those very expensive, very heavy batteries?

We do think after all the political rhetoric, the public deserves better.

If we are going to improve fuel economy, the government needs to stop using different sets of numbers   and cutting deals that allow large credits against these numbers or exempt luxury car makers entirely, as California lawmakers did. The administration has apparently adapted this approach in the national rules yet to be published but when it leaked out, it quickly denied that such a deal had been cut.

Not only don’t we know what numbers to believe, we don’t even know who is going to have to abide by them.

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3 Responses to “Is EPA’s Electric Car Mileage Standard Bogus?”

  1. Larry says:

    It’s puzzling why GM who has acknowledged themselves that consumers are skeptical about their products made this very skeptical statement about the Volt. Would it not have been better to perhaps provide a number of different driving range and mpg numbers under various real world driving conditions and thus demonstrate that there is indeed a new GM?

  2. John Matras says:

    What I want to know is how far a car will go on a bucket of coal.

    • Ken Zino says:

      Yes, we didn’t address the fact that 50% of U.S. electricity is produced by coal, an environmental disaster if you look at greenhouse gas production.