Dingell calls Honda lawsuit “a very small matter” on Driving the Nation

Is the EPA certified miles per gallon advertisement on the window sticker of the car part of the decision making process of buying a car?

The miles for each car says it is certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Those miles per gallon are advertised on the window of each car. Every single car manufacturer uses the EPA certified mpg when they advertise anywhere, whether it is newspaper, television, or on the car it’self.

In 2006 Heather Peters purchased a brand new Honda Civic hybrid, “I bought the car because the window sticker said the car would get fifty miles per gallon in the city and on the highway. The hybrid cost about $24,000, while the gasoline equivalent was around $16,000.”

Peters never got fifty miles per gallon, “the best I got was forty-one miles per gallon on a good day.” Peters is suing Honda. There are extenuating circumstances that made Peters sue Honda. Honda, Peters claims, made some modifications to the car that allowed the engine to be used more than the battery which further degraded her miles per gallon. What Peters does say is, “I know the window sticker number is EPA certified, but Honda put those numbers on their sticker. They are allowed to put a lower number, but they used the higher EPA numbers.”

Peters is correct, Honda could use their own numbers, citing 40 C.F.R. Section 600.210-08, which states that a manufacturer has the discretion to lower the MPG value advertised if it “determines that the resulting label values from either of these methods are not representative of the fuel economy for that model type.”

Currently, 500,000 Civics can be part of the lawsuit.

Do the Politicians in charge understand that consumers see the window sticker as part of the advertising for a car? Do Politicians understand that “EPA certified” is a stamp of approval to consumers?

The EPA is an agency under Congress. They enforce all regulations written by Congress. At the 2012 Detroit auto show I was talking to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Secretary Ray LaHood, Congressman John D. Dingell, (D) Michigan, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Secretary Lisa P. Jackson.

I asked LaHood about the class-action lawsuit, and the small claims lawsuit by Heather Peters, involving the Honda Civic hybrid. His answer was about the 54.5 miles per gallon. I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he had not understood the question.

So, I asked LaHood and Lisa P. Jackson again. Jackson was about to answer, but before either of them could open their mouths Congressman Dingell answered, saying, “this is a very small matter.”

This is a big deal if auto manufacturers are going to have to fight lawsuit’s about the validity of the EPA certified numbers on the window sticker.

There are a couple of real reasons why car companies don’t use their own numbers:

1. When a consumer looks at the sticker and it says “EPA certified” most people tend to think those numbers are more accurate than the car manufacturers. For this reason, there is not one single car company that uses their own number. They all use the EPA certified number. It is akin to putting FDA approved on a food product, it is a stamp of approval, a certification of the numbers one will get when driving.

Most people know that the mpg numbers are certified by the EPA. What they don’t realize is that only a small percentage of cars are tested by the EPA. A group called Consumer watchdog just sent a letter to President Obama asking him to bring testing in-house in order to re-evaluate the process and to increase consumer confidence in the EPA numbers that are listed on the window stickers of new cars.

Once again, I went to fueleconomy.gov to find out just how vehicles are tested. I found out that not every vehicle is tested for fuel economy. Instead, the website says, manufacturers are required to split each model into smaller groups, based upon the various options available that can impact fuel economy (such as vehicle weight, transmission type and engine size). A vehicle from each of these groups with the highest projected sales must be tested.

Manufacturers test all the vehicles at their laboratories. EPA confirms about 10-15 percent of the vehicles at it’s National Vehicles and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

2. Congress is calling for car manufacturers to meet 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. If the car companies use the EPA certified numbers on the window sticker, they can use the same numbers when calculating Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) numbers. If they use their own numbers on the window sticker will they have to use those lower numbers, than the EPA, to calculate their CAFE average?

John M. DeCicco, Ph.D., University of Michigan, explained to me that “the MPG numbers used for CAFE are not the same as the EPA window sticker values. The government effectively keeps two sets of books on fuel economy: unrealistically high lab test numbers uesd for CAFE (and using those unrealistic numbers is in fact a Congressional requirement), and the window sticker values that EPA has adjusted downward to make them more realistic. I believe they are more realistic on average (and a lot of data support that, not just my own small sample).”

“But real-world mileage still varies a lot from car to car, driver to driver and season to season. So while the window stickers are pretty good on average, it’s a rare individual that is a “statistical average” and so the EPA numbers that automakers put on their window stickers and advertize in marketing materials are pretty poor predictors of what any particular driver will get on the road.”

Last night my neighbor, Sheri, came over. I asked her if she thought the numbers on the window sticker were part of her decision making process. She said yes. I asked her if she knew the numbers were certified by the EPA, not the car companies numbers. She didn’t.

When I asked her which numbers she would trust more she said the car companies, “I don’t trust anything our Congress does”.

To the heart of this problem is the lawsuit’s the car companies will incur. While they may be seen as just a nuisance to some, and a “small matter” to Congressman Dingell, it will hurt the car companies reputation with the public.

About the Author:

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY), Women's World Car of the Year (WWCOTY), and the Concept Car of the Year.

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