EPA to Revise Car Mileage Ratings Boston Globe reporter Royal Ford talks to host Melissa Block about the EPA's plans to change the way it estimates car fuel economy ratings.

EPA to Revise Car Mileage Ratings

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Gas prices at the pump have actually come down some over the last couple of weeks, but we're still paying an average of $2.80 for a gallon of regular by one measure. And you may be doing the math, wondering why that pricey tankful isn't going as far as promised by the fuel economy rating, the one stuck on the window when you bought that car. Well, the Environmental Protection Agency now says it plans to change the way it arrives at those inflated mile-per-gallon numbers. Royal Ford writes about cars for The Boston Globe. He says the way the EPA comes up with these ratings is out of date.

Mr. ROYAL FORD (The Boston Globe): The EPA does a series of tests that are actually conducted by the automakers to EPA standards. They're based on 30-year-old assumptions of American driving. Some of the key mistakes in the EPA testing: They assume an average highway speed of 48 miles per hour, and I think if you drive on today's highway at 48, you're probably roadkill pretty quickly. They assume only five minutes of stopping in traffic covering, I don't know, more than 10 miles in city driving. And today, if you drive 10 miles in a city, you're going to spend more than five minutes in traffic at lights or just in traffic jams. They don't test any vehicles in cold weather, and they don't test anything with the air conditioners on, so, you know, hot and cold, well, they ignore that as well.

BLOCK: Well, how off have these numbers been that the EPA has been using?

Mr. FORD: Well, I find they tend to run anywhere from two miles a gallon overall low to--I've found them as low as 10 miles per gallon overall low. Consumer Reports did some testing and found glaring deficiencies in a handful of models.

BLOCK: So apart from the things you've mentioned, Royal, is there anything else that the EPA is going to take into account now when it's trying to bring these numbers into the 21st century?

Mr. FORD: Well, in addition to speed on the highways, they're going to look at aggressive driving in suburbs and in the cities, where one company spokesman told me there's a lot of red-light drag strip racing that goes on in cities, people trying to beat each other away from the lights. That takes a lot of fuel.

BLOCK: Automakers would be opposed to this, or how do they feel about it?

Mr. FORD: I would think they'd be opposed to it. The stickers in the windows do two things. They help to sell the car. If you're out shopping for an economical car, it certainly loo--I mean, a fuel-efficient car, it certainly looks better to see, you know, `20 miles per gallon city; 40 highway' than it would to see `15 city and 30 highway.' And the second way the automakers benefit is in meeting federal gasoline standards. The fleets of cars and trucks have to meet an overall standard. The car manufacturers get to use the EPA numbers as the standard that their fleets are making when, in fact, they're not.

BLOCK: So when would we be looking at different, revised, more realistic numbers plastered on the windows of cars?

Mr. FORD: Well, the EPA told me that if they propose this by the end of this year, it would take about a year for hearings to be held and the regulations to be enacted, so probably 2007 model year would be the earliest you could see this.

BLOCK: Royal, we noticed an ad spread in The New York Times today, two full pages, and the headline was `Nine over 30.' It was nine Chevrolet models that are supposed to get 30 miles per gallon on the highway or more.

Mr. FORD: Right.

BLOCK: With gas prices the way they are, is it affecting car buying? Are people seeking out more fuel-efficient cars?

Mr. FORD: Well, I think, you know, without the advertising, they're seeking out more efficient cars, but you also note that that ad--here's another effect of changing EPA numbers. That ad cites EPA numbers of cars that are getting over 30, so the odds are, if they claim the car's getting 30, it's not, because it's using EPA numbers.

BLOCK: And in terms of car buying, i...

Mr. FORD: Car buying, there's been a--it's hard to look at, you know, this momentary flash because of gasoline prices. SUV sales have gone down--I think it's about 15 percent over two years. It's been a fairly steady--I mean, I think it's more leveling off. People are leaving the bigger SUVs, going to crossovers, that sort of thing. It's been a leveling off. It's still going to be a significant part of our market, even though they're in some disfavor right now. Pickup trucks and SUVs and minivans are all called light trucks, and they're going to continue to make up almost half of all the vehicles sold in the country.

What auto dealers, at least in New England, have told me is that they're not seeing so much people saying, `Get me out of this SUV, and get me into a Toyota Prius.' They're seeing, `Get me out of this big SUV, and get me into a small SUV,' such as the Ford Escape.

BLOCK: So they're downsizing just a little bit?

Mr. FORD: They're downsizing within their segment.

BLOCK: Royal Ford is automotive writer for The Boston Globe.

Royal, thanks very much.

Mr. FORD: No sweat.

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