The Mileage-Per-Gallon Fraud

by Randy Shaw on January 6, 2006

After buying a hybrid a few months ago, I soon learned that the car was not achieving the projected miles per gallon. I heard from others that all cars fall below the EPA estimated gas mileage, but in my case the numbers were not even close. Fortunately, the current issue of Sierra magazine provides the details behind EPA’s misleading estimates, and the situation is even worse than suspected. How does the auto industry get away with this fraud, and why do legislators stand for it?

When someone sells a vehicle based on false representations of fact, this is ordinarily considered consumer fraud. But a different set of rules appears to govern the auto industry, which knowingly sells cars with false mileage per gallon estimates to unknowing consumers.

Dashka Slater’s article, “Sticker Shock,” in the current Sierra magazine reveals the truth behind the pervasive EPA fuel-efficiency standards. These are the standards that everyone talks about when shopping for a car, and that have become an even greater selling point as environmentally-conscious consumers seek to reduce gasoline consumption.

The truth about EPA standards follows a Consumer Reports magazine survey of 303 new cars from 200 to 2006. 90% got less miles per gallon than promised by the EPA, and many got only half the mileage pledged.

Even worse, the discrepancy between the EPA mpg and the actual mpg has doubled since 2000.

How does the EPA come up with its numbers? If you assumed they did it by actually driving cars on highways and streets, you’re wrong. Instead, the agency uses a “dynamometer,” a treadmill-like machine that “creates a parallel universe where streets are free of traffic, highway speeds average 48 miles per hour, and a car’s wheels never touch pavement.”

In other words, the EPA standards have no connection to reality.

Now some people will react to this information by saying it is irrelevant, since if the EPA estimates are skewed for all cars, then buying hybrids and smaller cars is still better than purchasing SUV’s. But America’s longtime reliance on false fuel efficiency standards will make it difficult if not impossible to achieve meaningful improvements in the future.

For example, let’s say that enviro groups got the next Congress and President to pass legislation (defeated in 2004) mandating greatly increased mile per gallon standards. At best, these new rules will give us the same standards we thought we already had, as a car that supposedly gets 20 mpg now is really only getting 12.

While the EPA claims it will soon propose new testing methods, no new test providing accurate projections will be approved so long as the Bush Administration runs the agency.

So best case political scenario is that in 2009 the EPA uses new methodology that confirms what Consumer Reports already showed. This would then require a major campaign to get actual fuel efficiency standards by 2015 to exceed where they are now.

That’s not much progress.

An immediate strategy would be for our federal, state and local elected officials to begin publicizing this fuel economy charade. It may be that state or local governments can require the posting of alternative miles per gallon criteria on all cars for sale within their jurisdiction.

Perhaps some enterprising car dealer will try to drum up business by voluntarily publishing the actual miles per gallon. That’s a marketing strategy that could at least succeed in the socially conscious Bay Area.

The biggest discrepancies found between the Consumer Reports and EPA standards were for hybrids. So sellers of hybrids may have the greatest incentive to start telling the truth about the fuel efficiency of their vehicles.

For more information on efforts to increase fuel economy, visit

Filed under: Archive