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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Truth in Mileage

Air Date: Week of

The car you drive may not get nearly as many miles to the gallon that you thought it would when you bought it. Host Steve Curwood speaks with John Nielson, Director of Consumer Affairs for the American Automobile Association, as Nielson test-drives a new car to determine its fuel efficiency. Republican Congresswoman from Connecticut, Nancy Johnson, then explains a bill she is co-sponsoring that would change the way the EPA tests cars for its miles per gallon rating.


CURWOOD: With the price of gasoline heading higher and higher, the miles per gallon sticker affixed to the windows of new cars may be getting a closer look these days from car shoppers. But, let the buyer beware. According to the American Automobile Association, road tests show these estimates are likely to be wildly optimistic compared to real-world driving. Joining me now is John Nielson, director of consumer information and automotive repair for the AAA. Hi, John.

NIELSON: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: John, I understand that at this moment you're driving a Chevy Cobalt, on a test run for us – cruising at about 45 down a two-lane highway near Orlando, Florida. So, just what kind of mileage are you getting?

NIELSON: Based on what I've done the last two days, my guess is that I'm about 27 miles to the gallon right now. I would say, 80 percent of my driving has been highway and 20 percent has been stop and go. And if you average all that out, we're probably, I'm going to say 14 to 16 percent below what the window sticker would say.

CURWOOD: Now, what kind of assumptions about people's driving habits and conditions under which most of us drive is the Environmental Protection Agency getting wrong?

NIELSON: Well, the standards for the EPA figures that we see in the window really are based on, on the 1970s when the speed limit was 55 miles an hour and when vehicles were much different than they are today and I daresay that driving conditions were much different than they are today. Most of us travel in rush hour traffic and, other examples, during the EPA test they don't use the air conditioner.

CURWOOD: They don't?

NIELSON: No, absolutely not. In fact, they never accelerate to 60 miles an hour faster than 18 seconds. And, as we're all aware, trying to merge into traffic at that type of pace would actually be dangerous. And then there's a couple of things that people don't think about and that's, in cold weather your fuel economy will always be lower than it is in warm weather.

CURWOOD: What's the worst case you've found? What's the most egregious gap between what the so-called EPA rating is and what the real experience is?

NIELSON: I don't have the numbers in front of me, but we've seen, I believe, on a trailblazer, I believe we saw roughly 14.7 gallons real world and the sticker was, I believe in the 23-24 mile per gallon range. That's pretty substantial.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I guess so. It means you're going to fill up at the pump, what?, 60 percent more often than you thought.

NIELSON: It sure is.

CURWOOD: We'll catch up with John Nielson again in just a minute or two, but I want to check in now with Connecticut Republican Congresswoman Nancy Johnson. She's co-sponsoring a bill that would change the way the Environmental Protection Agency rates automobile mileage. Congresswoman, what's at stake here?

JOHNSON: Well, first of all, this is an everyday pocketbook issue. As gas prices go up, I hear more and more from my constituents about what a struggle it is to afford to commute. It's skyrocketing gas prices are hitting us hard everyday in our pocketbooks. And so, when one of my constituents and I were talking about energy issues and he mentioned this to me. I looked into it. And, frankly, it is inexcusable for the government to be misleading consumers with their own tax dollars as they buy a car as to how many miles per gallon the car is going to get.

CURWOOD: And it's amazing. You walk into the showroom, those numbers are huge. It's the biggest number on the sticker.

JOHNSON: Well, they're getting, they put a lot of play on it. And with gas, two dollars a gallon. People care about it. And then to find out that it's so inaccurate. I mean there's tremendous swing in these numbers. And the AAA testing has demonstrated that.

CURWOOD: Can you tell me about this legislation? What are you hoping to accomplish?

JOHNSON: Well, it's very simple. We're just directing the EPA to use common, everyday driving habits as the environment in which they test for miles per gallon. They're using 30 year-old mileage tests. Just use today's standards of driving. The EPA acknowledges that their figures are wrong. We need our tax dollars to produce honest information to guide people buying a car. Big investment, miles per gallon is important. It's everyday pocketbook stuff.

CURWOOD: Let's say, Congresswoman, that your bill goes through. It becomes law. To what extent would it affect the corporate average fuel economy or CAF´E standards which govern the fuel efficiencies of cars and light trucks in the U.S.?

JOHNSON: Well, that's a sort of a separate and different issue, but I think as we get more honest fuel figures, I think it's going to put pressure on the CAFE debate, but they're very separate. I think if people have honest information about how many miles per gallon they're going to get, they'll choose cars that are more economical from the point of view of fuel usage and, frankly, Detroit will hear that loud and clear.

CURWOOD: In whose interest is it to keep things the same, the way they are right now?

JOHNSON: It may be that Detroit benefits from these very vague and overstated miles per gallon figures that we see on the car. So, it's got to be high on the agenda of families even though it may not be high on the agenda of automakers.

CURWOOD: Why would Detroit benefit from the system?

JOHNSON: Well, because people think they're getting better miles per gallon than they are and the auto companies, therefore, aren't under so much pressure to improve their fuel economy. Detroit could improve the fuel economy lots of ways but they aren't motivated to send their research and development dollars there to really compete on that basis because the tests provide such misleading information.

CURWOOD: How do you handicap the odds of your own bill getting through Congress?

JOHNSON: I think they're pretty high.


JOHNSON: Yeah, because it's so obvious. I mean, this is the kind of bill, that if we can get it out there on the floor it will pass overwhelmingly.

CURWOOD: Nancy Johnson is the Republican Congresswoman from Connecticut. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

JOHNSON: Nice to be with you. Thanks.

CURWOOD: John Nielson from AAA, are you still there.


CURWOOD: And where are you now?

NIELSON: I am on I-4, just north of Orlando and there is very little traffic. I'm travelling at 65 miles per hour and having a very smooth ride. I have the cruise control set.

CURWOOD: So, John, while the public waits for Congress to take action on truth in mileage, what kinds of things can we as drivers do to get better mileage out of cars right now? You know, realistic things.

NIELSON: There's a couple of things we can all do quite easily and the first is to check the air pressure in your tires. And you'd want to use the specifications that are located in most of our cars, right inside the drivers' door. Just maintaining your tire pressure can have an impact on your fuel economy by as much as ten percent.

The next thing it to make sure that you're not hauling around unnecessary weight. The golf clubs in the trunk, the books, bricks, the cat litter or sand from the, up in the wintertime to get traction. Get that out, that will make an improvement.

From there, it's really, plan your trips, try to minimize the stop and go driving, plan around rush hour, if you can avoid it, by all means do, and when you do go out, make an entire run at one time. Go by the grocery store and go by the dry cleaners and go home.

CURWOOD: So, if it's ten percent for tire inflation and, maybe, a couple of percentage points for unnecessary weight and putting these trips together, we can improve our mileage by what, 20 percent just by thinking about it?

NIELSON: Absolutely, 20 percent is something we could effect.

CURWOOD: Alright, your favorite car for fuel economy of those you've tested over this time?

NIELSON: You know, I think the Prius was an outstanding vehicle. A car that I really was surprised with was the Mercedes E320 CDI Diesel which is a full-size four-door car that was well over 30 miles to the gallon average. That was a fantastic vehicle and then, in the realm of things that most of us would be in the ballpark to buy, we'd be looking at the Honda Civic, did very well. The Ford Escape hybrid did very well around town, as well.

CURWOOD: John Nielson is director of consumer affairs for the American Automobile Association. He joined us from the road the road there outside of Orlando, Florida. Thanks for taking this time today.

NIELSON: Steve, it was great to be with you.

CURWOOD: And drive safely.

NIELSON: Thank you.



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