portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article reporting portland metro

environment

Hybrid Car Hype

"Hybrid cars are hot, but not as hot as their owners, who complain that their gas mileage hasn't come close to well-advertised estimates."

I'll opt for Bio-diesel any day over a Hybrid.
Hybrid cars are hot, but not as hot as their owners, who complain that their gas mileage hasn't come close to well-advertised estimates.

Don't knock the car companies for inflated claims: Experts say the blame lies with the 19-year-old EPA fuel-efficiency test that overstates hybrid performance.

Pete Blackshaw was so excited about getting a hybrid gasoline-electric car that he had his wife videotape the trip to the Honda dealership to pick up his Civic Hybrid. The enthusiastic owner ordered a customized license plate with "MO MILES" on it, and started a blog about his new hybrid lifestyle.

But after a few months of commuting to his job in Cincinnati, Blackshaw's hybrid euphoria vanished as his car's odometer revealed that the gas mileage he was hoping for was only a pipe dream. Honda's Civic Hybrid is rated by the EPA to get 47 miles per gallon in the city, and 48 mpg on the highway. After nearly 1,000 miles of mostly city driving, Blackshaw was getting 31.4 mpg.

"I feel like a complete fraud driving around Cincinnati with a license plate that says MO MILES," says Blackshaw, who claims that after 4,000 miles his car has never gotten more than 33 mpg on any trip. The tenor of Blackshaw's blog shifted from adulation to frustration after his Honda dealer confirmed that his car was functioning properly, and that there was nothing he could do.

Blackshaw, who is chief customer satisfaction officer at Intelliseek.com, spoke to a Honda regional manager about his concerns, and wrote a letter to a Honda vice president on April 15 that was not answered. His story has been echoed dozens of times online by owners of the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius.

Drivers rarely see the actual EPA-rated mileage in the real world, according to John DiPietro, road-test editor of automotive website Edmunds.com. DiPietro says most drivers will get between 75 to 87 percent of the rated mileage, with individual variations based on driving habits and traffic route. "If a new car gets less than 75 percent of its EPA rating, then it should be retested."

Data from independent product-testing organization Consumer Reports indicates that hybrid cars get less than 60 percent of EPA estimates while navigating city streets. In Consumer Reports' real-world driving test, the Civic Hybrid averaged 26 mpg in the city, while the Toyota Prius averaged 35 mpg, much less than their respective EPA estimates of 47 and 60 mpg. Hybrid cars performed much closer to EPA estimates in Consumer Reports' highway tests.

Consumer Reports' senior auto test engineer Gabriel Shenhar says that while the EPA test is a lab simulation, Consumer Reports puts the cars on the streets and measures the fuel consumed to more accurately reflect gas mileage.

The 19-year-old EPA tests for city and highway mileage actually gauge vehicle emissions and use that data to derive an estimated fuel-efficiency rating. The EPA tests pre-production vehicles in a lab to simulate vehicle starts and stops on crowded city streets and open road conditions. According to the EPA website, "The tests measure the waste substances emitted from consuming the fuel, not the actual fuel consumed. From the measurement of emissions, EPA can estimate the miles per gallon achieved by the vehicle on average."

"The (EPA) test needs to include more fundamental engineering," says John H. Johnson, an automotive expert who co-authored a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report on fuel-efficiency standards. "They haven't been updated to encompass hybrids."

Johnson says the test was created so that it could be affordably reproduced, not to be as accurate as possible. "It's complicated to simulate all of the engineering factors in a moving vehicle," says Johnson, and hybrid cars, which use batteries to assist the gasoline engine, make the task all the more daunting.

The EPA did not respond to questions about its testing procedures in time to appear in this article.

Toyota environmental engineer Dave Hermance says the EPA city test includes 19 stops of at least a few seconds, which take up a "non-trivial" amount of the test and could cause hybrid cars to rate even higher than conventional cars because of their reliance on electric motors. "But I could also make arguments about aspects of the test going the other way, too." Hermance says that because the EPA uses historical data from 1972, it's virtually impossible to change the test.

Hermance says customers who drive less than seven miles per trip will get fewer miles per gallon, as will drivers who speed. "There's a huge range of customer behavior and limited resources to collect data, so there's no perfect test."

The EPA test "has inherent shortcomings, irrespective of what kind of car is being driven," says Philip Schmidt, professor of engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Schmidt says hybrid cars use computers to more precisely control the flow of gasoline and have more efficient catalytic converters, which reduce the amount of emissions. Schmidt "wouldn't rule out" that hybrid cars' ability to limit emissions contributes to the disparity in EPA versus real-world numbers.

But the inflated EPA numbers have been a public relations conundrum for Honda and Toyota, which are caught between hyped expectations and detracting from one of the cars' main selling points -- better mileage.

Federal law requires that auto manufacturers use only EPA estimates when promoting their vehicles' fuel economy, according to Toyota spokeswoman Nancy Hubbell. While the company received some complaints about gas mileage, Hubbell says many Prius owners get close to their EPA-rated mileage. Toyota Prius sales increased 152 percent this April over last year, and many consumers are on a three- to six-month waiting list, Hubbell says.

Placing a gas mileage gauge on the dashboard has made more drivers aware of their fuel efficiency, says Honda spokesman Andy Boyd, which cuts both ways. "If every car were like that, more people would be complaining (about their conventional cars)," Boyd says. He says the company is dealing with dissatisfied users on an individual basis, and the company is reviewing how to respond to questions about mileage.

Civic Hybrid owner Blackshaw says the EPA ratings created a perception problem that discourages some of the technology's most ardent supporters. "Nothing is more viral than a false advertising claim," Blackshaw says. "That's why it is so important that manufacturers set clear expectations."

homepage: homepage: http://www.wired.com/news/autotech/0,2554,63413,00.html?tw=wn_tophead_1

EPA milage 12.May.2004 14:52

driver

I wonder if Blackshaw has a lead foot. I recently bought a toyota sienna that is EPA rated at 20mpg city. It's a big 8 passenger van but i'm getting 24 to 26 mpg with half hiway and half city driving. I drive with a light foot....

this story seems a little fishy... 12.May.2004 16:00

this thing here

>Data from independent product-testing organization Consumer Reports indicates that hybrid cars get less than 60 percent of EPA estimates while navigating city streets.<

if this is true, IF, then it wouldn't be too far off to expect to find a chevy suburban, rated at 13 miles per gallon, getting less than 60% of EPA estimates, now would it?

why trust ANY mpg estimate then?

if this is a suspicious article, look at how targeted this article is. compared to readers of field and stream for example, i would imagine that subscribers or readers of wired would also be those most interested in looking at hybrids.

hyper cars are the real answer 12.May.2004 17:34

econut

try the hyper car:  http://hypercar.com

hybrid Prius 12.May.2004 17:38

thrilled

Though I am not a car person, I purchased a Pruis 3 years ago, the first generation in the U.S. My Prius currently gets 49 mpg. It is supposed to get 53 mpg in town and 47 on the freeway. I have noticed that when I drive in town, my gas mileage goes up. I drive 45 minutes, twice a day, to work, and I take the freeway twice a day.

My car needed repairs. I was told not to let the gas get too low, but didn't realize the importance of that instruction. When my car needed repairs, it only got 35 mpg, but since the repair, the mileage has been great.

Of course, with the Prius, the gas consumption is just one small point. The real advantage is that emissions are 98% less. Certainly, walking, riding a bike, or taking mass transit (there isn't any where I am, believe it or not) is much better for a multitude of reasons. The hybrid won't free us from gasoline. However, it is certainly a technology long overdue. One reason I purchased one was to demonstrate that there is a market for more environmentally friendly vehicles.

Perhaps these guys just drive like crap. 12.May.2004 23:08

yuppa

I drive a 13 year old mitsubishi mirage w/ 200,000 miles and I get 35mpg on the freeway. There are quite a few dummies out there that don't seem to understand that always flooring it doesn't always equate to efficient driving. 'Driver' has the right idea, drive with a light foot. Infact, often you can move your gas pedal around just a little with no variation in speed, just variation in gas usage. Could be the above drivers are just tailgating maniacs who complain about everything and everyone is in there way and they drive like total shit.

I have another friend with a Prius, he's been gettin 37 in the city (downtown Seattle area), but there's plenty of hills and awful traffic. So that's actually pretty good as far as I'm concerned.

I have heard good reports for mileage 14.May.2004 11:36

67 year old

My brother, who is a professor at a university, is a very careful guy about keeping records for mileage and so forth. He bought a Prius a year ago and finds that it slightly exceeds the mileage expectations promised by the manufacturer. He is a family guy, also with one of those mini-vans, and they live about 10 or 15 miles out on a country highway, and then they don't ever encounter traffic like Portland or L.A. But, still, a lot of miles and a report that is reliable. Wish I could afford one of those hybrids.