100 MPG: Holy Grail or Hype?

Regulators and automakers collude in bending the fuel economy numbers.

by on Apr.21, 2009

100 mpg from a Hummer H3?  Depends on how you do the math.

Get 100 mpg from a Hummer H3? It depends on how you do the math.

The morning headline in the online version of our local Detroit Free Press blares out “100 mile per gallon truck,” a reference to the IDEA, a concept vehicle developed by Bright Automotive, debuting on paper today, at a press conference in Washington DC.

And as regular readers of TheDetroitBureau.com read, just yesterday, a prototype plug-in hybrid version of the Hummer also claims to be getting 100 mpg.  Hummer boss Jim Taylor told me, “It’s safe to say” that the truck maker, the brand environmentalists love to hate, will need to seriously consider such an alternative energy approach when it’s formally sold off by GM, in the coming weeks. There are no plans to produce this Hummer; it is strictly a concept.

Then there’s the Chevrolet Volt, General Motor’s eagerly-awaited plug-in hybrid – GM prefers the term, extended-range electric vehicle, by the way – which is due to market late next year.  It’s also expected to deliver that Holy Grail number, 100 mpg. The problem here is the President’s Auto task Force has already declared that the vehicle is  too  expensive to be competitive with already on sale hybrids. Still, 100 mpg  is a great headline.

Subscribe to TheDetroitBureau.comThe huge numbers promised for the new crop of plug-in hybrids should be taken with a large shaker of salt.  Mileage numbers aren’t always what they seem.  And in the race to deliver better fuel economy than ever, one has to ask whether the auto industry has discovered the Holy Grail, or is simply delivering a lot of hype by taking advantage of how the numbers are generated, and with the U.S. government looking the other way.

Conceivably, you may never use a drop of gasoline on these new plug-in hybrids.  The idea behind a PHEV is that you can drive up to around 40 miles using the energy stored in its battery pack.  That’s enough, numerous studies show, to satisfy the daily needs of about 75% of American motorists.

But should you need travel a bit further – maybe for a business meeting, or a weekend jaunt to visit family – you’ll have the advantage of being able to keep going, unlike a conventional battery car.  In the case of Volt, its large internal combustion engine will fire up and generate current to keep powering the electric motors turning its wheels.

But will you actually get 100 mpg?  Not a chance.  Once you’re burning gasoline, you’ll get something closer to 40 mpg.  Now, that’s not bad, and actually exceeds the upcoming increase in federal mileage standards.  But it’s still only a fraction of the 100 mpg sticker.  Washington regulators have come up with a complex formula to give credit for those days when you’re just driving on electric power, ignoring  how the electricity is generated in the energy use calculations. Your mileage will vary.

Proponents of electrification would call these calculations fair, skeptics  and people who passed middle school arithmetic, find it more than a bit misleading.

“These vehicles will not truly get 100 miles per gallon of gasoline,” cautions Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with AutoPacific, Inc., “not in the traditional sense.  It’s a great number,” she adds.  “It sounds awesome because 45 mpg just isn’t good enough, anymore, to make you sound like you have a groundbreaking product, anymore.  It’s too close to reality.”

A fair point.  While the industry, as a whole, is frantically trying to figure out how to get the average car, truck and crossover to achieve 35 mpg, there are plenty of new hybrids and diesels that are beating that number – just not enough of them yet.  So, getting a few 100-milers in the fleet has a dual purpose: it makes nice headlines…and it helps improve a maker’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, numbers.

One might be able to make a fair case for a plug-in, like Volt, or the IDEA concept, many of which will be run on electricity, most of the time.  But “there are plenty of other ways you can get credits” that stretch a vehicle’s fuel economy rating, says Brinley, sometimes well beyond credulity.

Carmakers have gotten credit for such things as “up-shift” lights.  Those little dashboard warning signals that insist you change gears on your manual transmission.  In concept, they make sense because most drivers don’t shift at the optimum point for maximizing fuel economy.  But whether the lights actually ever motivate “greener” behavior is a serious question.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this new math involves the effort to cut our dependence upon import oil by promoting the use of ethanol, in particular E85, a blend of 85% grain alcohol and 15% gasoline.

These days, auto manufacturers are rolling out millions of cars, each year, capable of running on anything from pure gasoline to E85, yet odds are you’ve never used ethanol, other than the light, E5 blend some refiners use to clean up emissions; (it’s 95% gasoline).  In fact, I’d bet no one in your immediate family, your neighborhood or your office has ever consciously pumped a tank full of E85.

So, in an industry where makers fret over every extra penny, why would a company like GM convert products like its big Chevy Suburban to flex-fuel capability, a process that involves such costly things as stainless steel fuel lines and a special fuel tank capable of resisting the corrosive liquid?

Because the 20 mpg V-8-powered SUV suddenly gets 30 mpg credit in the federal CAFE calculations – a 50% bump reflecting the fantasy that half of all owners would run on the alcohol-based fuel. Want to buy some triple AAA rated mortgagebacked securities? Well, here’s the automotive equivalent.

“Because the auto companies are not as stupid as they look, they have chosen to make most of their flexible-fuel vehicles their least-efficient vehicles. So they get the maximum fuel economy benefit,” said Sierra Club lawyer Dan Becker, during a Congressional hearing, in December 2007, on automotive mileage standards.

The even greater irony is that, on average, cars running on E85 will experience a decline in fuel economy of between 20 to 35%, reflecting the lower energy content in alcohol versus gasoline. And ethanol is taxpayer subsidized and is costing you billions of dollars a year.

It’s expected that the push to meet the increased mileage standards Washington has enacted will cost the auto industry tens of billions of dollars.  So expect to see manufacturers seek out every opportunity they can, whether it’s a bonus for using cleaner fuels or brownie points for introducing fuel-saving technologies to make it look like fuel economy is better than it is.

The makers also go out of their way to maximize the results they get when their cars go through mileage certification.

To its credit, the Environmental Protection Agency runs an absolutely rigid testing system.  It relies on specially certified fuels, stored in a precise manner.  Vehicles are run on carefully calibrated dynamometers and repeat the extra same sample driving loops.

But there lies the problem.  The testing procedures are known to every automaker, and these days, the typical computer-controlled powertrain can be tweaked and tuned to deliver the best possible fuel economy under precisely the conditions that exist in the EPA labs. Your milleage may vary.

Nowhere was this more obvious than when the first Japanese hybrid-electric vehicles arrived on U.S. shores, a decade ago.  With conventional vehicles, it was common, in fact, nearly ubiquitous, for consumers to get about 10% lower mileage than was shown on their vehicles’ Munroney, or window, stickers.  But early hybrids often got 20, even 30% less.  The general consensus, among industry watchers was that they had been carefully programmed to match the EPA cycle, even if that meant poorer on-road results.

In 2008, the feds completely redesigned test procedures to make it harder to turn in a great performance for CAFE purposes that couldn’t be matched in the real world.  The biggest adjustments, overall, where made to hybrid-electric vehicle ratings.  Some models saw their sticker ratings drop by 10 mpg or more.

Despite the fact that automakers and automotive regulators feign “shock, shock” at such distortions, don’t expect things to change all that much.  Both sides recognize the trend is towards improved fuel efficiency.  But getting there isn’t always as easy as just passing a new law.  And even if carmakers deliver breakthrough technology, that doesn’t guarantee consumers will race to the showrooms for it.  So, you’ll likely see some creative math when fuel economy numbers are calculated for some time to come.

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3 Responses to “100 MPG: Holy Grail or Hype?”

  1. Alan Wells says:

    Well, another example of unrestricted Federal intrusion in our lives. The shame is that most people (at least those below the 50% mark) believe this dribble. They also “believe” in the dream of (fill in your favorite Obama promise here…). But as (I understand) Will Rogers noted. “The thing that scares me most is a man that’s sure of something that just ain’t so.” Yeah, let’s have more guberment. That will solve the problems.

  2. tdb says:

    Alan,
    I normally steer clear of political arguments, such as this, and will decline to continue engaging, but, ahem, which president are you talking about? Obviously, the one who ran up the huge deficit and massive increase in the size of the federal government. That would refer, of course, to the guy who actually did say “guberment,” and “nuke-you-ler.”
    Hey, I can raise all sorts of issues about the new guy, but after George the Last, your arguments have the same false ring as having Cheney emerge from 8 years in an “undisclosed location” and suddenly demanding the release of the documents he kept ultra-top secret.
    As I say, I appreciate SOME of your concerns, but let’s get real about where we’ve just come from.
    Paul A. Eisenstein
    Publisher, TheDetroitBureau.com

  3. Dennis says:

    And now for “the rest of the story…”

    How do these guys at Raser come up with their 100 MPG? Simple, they claim that if you drive 60 miles per day that the first 40 is powered by electricity and the next 20 is provided by their 33 MPG onboard engine. Therefore, only 1/3 of the distance traveled was provided by gas at 33 MPG, so it’s as though you got the equivalent of 3 times 33 MPG, which equals 100 MPG.

    Now let’s see what Raser isn’t telling you. First, their 200KW electric motor costs MONEY to operate! How much, you ask? Easy. If you drive 40 miles on electric power — half in the city and half on the freeway — you will spend about 1 hour driving (20 miles @ 30 MPH = 40 minutes, 20 miles @ 60 MPH = 20 minutes). Raser’s 200KW motor is rated at 100KW continuous, so 1 hour of driving will likely consume roughly 100KWH worth of electricity (100KW times 1 hour). The average cost of electricity in the U.S. is 11.5 cents/KWH; therefore 100KWH costs you $11.50, got it? That’s eleven dollars and fifty cents to go forty miles!!! Luckily, you get to go the next 20 miles on good old gasoline @ roughly 33 MPG, which would consume 6/10ths of a gallon of gas if the gas engine powered the vehicle directly. Unfortunately, it first has to power a generator, which then charges batteries, which then powers the electric motor. Still, lets be generous and assume that this gas engine takes you 20 miles on 2/3 of a gallon of gas, which costs $1.67 (2/3 times $2.50).

    So the grand total to travel 60 miles in Raser’s shiny EREV (Extended Range Electric Vehicle) only cost you $13.17!!! Isn’t that great? Of course, you would’ve only spent $5.00 if you could’ve driven all of that distance powered by their good gas-mileage IC engine. Or you could’ve paid $7.50 in any vehicle that averaged 20 MPG. However, where’s the fun in that? Look, you’re driving a high tech “EREV”… ooooh! One that cost you an extra $25K, and that added an extra 1,000 pounds of weight to the vehicle. Nice extras, huh?? BTW, did I forget to mention that their 200KW motor only provides 134HP in continuous mode? But wait you say, it gives 268HP at peak operation. Yes, that’s about what the new Ford Taurus provides (except for the Ford Taurus SHO, which gives 350HP). So you’ll be riding around in your new EREV Hummer in a reduced 134-268HP powertrain… can you say “put, put, put”?

    Does anyone see anything wrong with this?? Now do you see why Raser omitted mentioning the cost of electricity and only focused on their fuzzy-math MPG gas equivalent calculation? In reality, at today’s prices, their Hummer only got the equivalent of 11.4 MPG ($13.17 divided by $2.5/gallon = 5.27 gallons, and 60 miles/5.27 gallons = 11.4 MPG)!!!!!!!!

    The fact is that electric vehicles have NOTHING to offer in solving America’s transportation needs. They are not cost-efficient nor are they technologically superior. The demand for electricity in the U.S. is expected to grow by a taxing 25% over the next decade. Raser’s Hummer draws 100KWH of electricity in order to travel it’s first 40 miles, which is well over 3 times the power that your house draws in a complete day! Talk about an instant energy crisis! It’s a good thing that battery technology is still limited and that they added an IC engine to extend the range, otherwise their Hummer would’ve used 150KWH of electricity, or more than 5 times the daily draw of an average home!!

    This conveniently omitted information might explain why Raser has also entered the geothermal power market… they realize that switching to EV’s would require well over a 300% + increase to America’s annual electric power consumption.

    My question is this, why couldn’t Raser be upfront and honest with us about the true costs of Electric Vehicles? Afterall, consumers have shown that they are willing to pay more for efficient green power.

    Could their hesitancy in telling us the whole story be due to the fact that EV’s are neither cost-efficient nor green compared to standard IC engine technology?

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