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Scary Data

Withered, distorted testing methods--don't look at them for too long or they'll really scare you!

By Novella Carpenter

It's the season for pretending you're something you're not. Like dressing up like a bloodsucking vampire and knocking on your neighbor's door demanding candy, candy, candy! Like the organization Voters Outreach of America (VOA), which recently registered people to vote in Nevada and then ripped up the applications of Democrats because VOA is really a firm called Sproul & Associates, hired by the Republican National Committee.

Like the fuel economy report the EPA had just put out for 2005, available at www.fueleconomy.org. The message came fresh from the official-sounding National Transportation Research Center in Tennessee via a man named Bo Saulsbury. There's nothing I like so much as fresh data, and lots of it, so I opened the file referred to as "complete Best and Worst in Class list" with delight. Best was no surprise--the hybrid Honda Insight manual transmission won for the sixth year in a row with 61 mpg in the city, 66 mpg highway, followed by the Toyota Prius (60 city, 51 highway). The Least Fuel Efficient category looked odd, though. There weren't any photos, and the names were exotic: Lamborghini, Maserati, Bentley. Are these popular American cars? Why include cars most people could never afford to drive on this list? Would Mr. and Mrs. Average look at this data, and say, "Oops, nope, can't buy that $100,000 Bentley honey, look at that terrible mileage! That'll break the bank."

I searched by class and found different information--for its official best/worst list, the EPA had included luxury cars in the lineup. But if nonluxury cars are considered, the worst offender in the compact-car category is the Subaru Impreza with 18 city/24 highway. The least-efficient large-size car would be the Chrysler 300 C AWD with 17 city/24 highway. This information was buried; it had to be unearthed, like a corpse by a consumer. Now I'm getting goose bumps.

How fuel economy is measured anyway is just plain distorted, a Quasimodo of scientific information. Here's how it's done: the miles per hour are calculated by the manufacturer in a controlled environment, scores are averaged and the sticker reflects that average. In the past, the EPA, realizing these numbers were much higher than real-life mileages, automatically adjusted the city mileage down 10 percent and the highway mileage down 22 percent. According to an article by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the tests--even after their adjustment--still overstate mileage by 10 percent. This is because the testing is outdated; the testers assume a highway speed of between 48 mph and 60 mph. Now, when's the last time you've been on any traffic jam-free highway and gone under 70? Fuel economy can drop by nearly 17 percent going that fast, compared to driving 55.

Nobody drives 55, so the test should reflect that tendency. Also, the tests don't take into account the use of air conditioning, shorter trip lengths (I have seen someone drive to a destination two blocks away) and abrupt acceleration tendencies of drivers--all of which contribute to a much lower fuel economy. Withered, distorted testing methods--don't look at them for too long or they'll really scare you!

As with most scary stories, there's more. The worst offenses were the lurking monsters hiding in the closet. This report is supposed to aid consumers making choices about which car, truck or SUV to buy. Yet a great number of those vehicles do not have to provide fuel economy information at all. Because of a loophole that exempts vehicles that weigh 8,500 pounds or more from posting fuel economy they are thus missing from the EPA report. That's why the Hummer wasn't on the least-efficient car list! And there are more of these hulking monsters--the Sierra Club listed a few of the top gas guzzlers that are exempt: Lincoln Navigator, BOO! GMC Yukon 2500 XL, GOTCHA! Ford Excursion, AHHHH!

Scary stuff indeed.

Novella will be a Venus flytrap for Halloween; email her at [email protected]

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From the October 27-November 3, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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