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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.

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