In the light of recent fuel consumption and emissions scandals across the globe, we have to wonder if fuel consumption stickers actually mean anything. Are they worth the paper they are printed on?
Mitsubishi Motors is the latest car maker to admit that its employees falsified fuel economy data for several vehicle models.
The tests involved 157,000 of its own city runabouts and 468,000 vehicles produced for Nissan.
None of the vehicles mentioned are sold in Australia, but the company says it plans to investigate whether data was altered for vehicles sold overseas.
The Mitsubishi admission is the latest in a series of mea culpas issued by leading car makers caught fiddling with fuel consumption figures.
Volkswagen has admitted to installing cheat devices on some vehicles to improve emissions results, while Kia and Hyundai were forced to pay fines in the United States after overstating fuel economy claims.
The revelations have put increasing pressure on regulators to take a greater role in testing vehicle emissions and fuel economy.
At the moment authorities trust the car makers to perform a laboratory fuel economy test that is supposed to replicate real-world driving.
But the makers have become expert at getting lower figures by deliberately tweaking cars for the test itself, rather than for real-world economy. They pump up tyres to get less resistance, disconnect alternators, use low friction oil and remove the spare tyre to reduce weight. Some have been known to test at high altitude for a better result.
In the case of Mitsubishi, tyre pressure data was falsified to make mileage appear better than it actually was.
Most car executives will privately admit that fuel economy windscreen stickers on most vehicles are optimistic to say the least.
The Australian Automobile Association (AAA) said earlier this year that it would conduct independent real-world tests on 30 popular models over the next 18 months to highlight the flaws in the current system.
The initial list of 30 vehicles is yet to be determined, but it will include petrol and diesel models.
The tests will mirror those being conducted by similar bodies overseas, but the AAA will prioritise models sold here.
The AAA says it is vital car buyers can believe the fuel economy and pollution ratings on the showroom labels.
Michael Bradley, chief executive of the AAA, said the organisation is “very concerned that the government currently has no capacity to test, audit or enforce elements of its current vehicle emissions regulatory regime”.
Mr Bradley said the debate about Australia’s current vehicle emission standards “risks being rendered meaningless unless a more relevant testing regime is put in place”.
“The Volkswagen scandal clearly shows that regulators across the globe now need to be assessing the emissions produced by vehicles in the real world, not just those produced in a laboratory,” he said.
The AAA aims to source the cars independently rather than borrow them from manufacturers, so they are indicative of what the public buys.
The testing will also use fuel bought at a petrol station, not special ‘laboratory fuel’.
A technical expert at the AAA, Craig Newland, said several overseas governments have started doing ‘real driving’ emissions tests because they recognise the lab tests don’t tell everything.
“Our concern is that there are some vehicles sold in Australia that are not sold overseas and we need some capability here to be able to assess those properly in the future,” he said.
The NRMA has also joined the argument, claiming that fuel consumption figures on the windscreen stickers on new cars can be almost 50 per cent optimistic compared with real-world use.
The Land Rover Discovery Sport SD4 2.0-litre turbo diesel averages 6.1L/100km according to Land Rover and the Green Vehicle Guide. When the NRMA tested the vehicle it averaged 9.0L/100km, or 47.5 per cent more than the official figure.
Australia adopted the European emissions standard and fuel consumption test in 2003. This test is used to obtain the official figures claimed by car makers. It consists of five simulated city and highway driving cycles over a total of 11km. The laboratory tests are done by the car makers themselves and the government takes them on face value.
The combined average consumption figure is arrived at by weighting the urban and highway numbers and adding the two to get an average for the final figure.
The fact that 63.1 per cent of the average comes from the highway part of the test explains why the combined figure can be so misleading, unless you do 63.1 per cent of your driving on the highway. If you live in a capital city, your car’s actual fuel consumption will always be much higher than the official combined average, especially with big, heavy cars and 4WDs.
“The official Australian test doesn’t reflect the fuel consumption that owners will get,” says NRMA engineer Jack Haley.
“The closer we can get to real-world figures, the better.”
The Australian Government has established a forum on vehicle emissions and Minister for Major Projects, Paul Fletcher, says it will be “an opportunity to fully investigate the issue of vehicle testing as well as many other issues in relation to vehicle emissions”.
Through the year there will be public consultation meetings and a discussion paper seeking feedback.