On Jan. 12, 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it plans to change how it calculates fuel economy for new cars and trucks to more accurately reflect the real-world mileage experience of American drivers. The EPA has increasingly come under criticism for outdated procedures that overestimate mileage by as much as 50 percent in some cases. Consumers are likely to see lower, more accurate numbers on window stickers of model 2008 vehicles arriving in dealer showrooms in the fall of 2007.

At the center of the controversy are the EPA ratings for the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road: hybrid gas-electric vehicles. As gas prices soared to dizzying heights in 2005, consumers abandoned full-size sports utility vehicles, and opted for smaller more efficient vehicles, such as hybrids. The Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, and Honda Civic Hybrid—all hybrids—are listed as the three most fuel-efficient cars based on EPA ratings. The top rankings have made hybrid cars a target of critics who claim the EPA’s ratings are inflated for these vehicles. Hybrid owners, despite some complaints about lower than expected mileage, are among the most satisfied drivers on American roads.

The Wrong Debate

The EPA’s new changes will likely provide more ammunition for critics to rehash the arguments over real and perceived shortcomings in hybrid fuel economy. But that’s the wrong debate. The real issue in need of a public airing is the federal government’s inability to curb the nation’s voracious thirst for gasoline, either by enforcing established fuel efficiency standards or encouraging the auto industry to adopt effective new technologies.

The EPA’s proposed ratings downshift does nothing to require automakers increase the fuel efficiency of their cars and trucks. The EPA conducts extensive evaluations to produce fuel economy and emissions ratings, but the agency merely spot-checks the testing and calculation conducted by automakers to determine compliance with mandated fuel economy levels under Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules. Under CAFE, the required average fuel economy is 27.5 mpg for passenger cars and 21.6 mpg for light-duty trucks and SUVs under 8,500 pounds. The average fuel economy for today’s new cars and trucks is lower than it was 20 years ago. Despite the rapid growth of the hybrid car market, hybrids accounted for only 1.2 percent of new car sales in 2005.

The EPA made changes to fuel economy numbers in 1985, when it began downward adjusting the mpg test numbers by 10 and 22 percent for city and highway mileage, respectively. The lower numbers have been used since that time, but automakers won a lawsuit to prevent the EPA from changing the numbers for the purposes of CAFE. "It’s an absurd situation," said Therese Langer, transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, an independent non-profit organization that monitors energy policy. "The numbers generated to demonstrate manufacturers’ CAFE compliance have little basis in reality."

The EPA’s changes are designed to reflect how Americans drive faster and use more accessories such as air-conditioning than they did when the tests were introduced in 1975. Hybrid cars are reportedly more sensitive to high speeds and use of accessories. As a result, the new EPA formula may more dramatically affect mpg ratings for hybrids than for conventional cars. Nonetheless, hybrids are expected to keep their rankings as the most efficient vehicles available to consumers. Relative fuel economy rankings of individual makes and models will be rearranged, but reduced numbers for the entire American fleet will reveal how little progress automakers have made in terms of fuel economy. Nearly all the advances in automotive technology in the past 30 years have been directed toward producing bigger, faster engines.

The Hybrid Car Cover-up of ’74

For decades, automakers have claimed they lack feasible and affordable technology to improve fuel economy. But as far back as 1974, the EPA evaluated a hybrid car prototype that doubled the fuel economy of a conventional version of the same vehicle. The agency certified that it met the strict guidelines for the EPA’s clean-air auto program—and rejected it out of hand.

The story about the vehicle and its inventor, Victor Wouk, is unknown among even the most diehard fans of today’s burgeoning hybrid car movement. “The government program I was on to develop hybrids was more secret than Los Alamos and the atom bomb,” Wouk said in an oral history interview with the CalTech Archives one year before his passing on May 19, 2005.

Wouk poses with his 1972 hybrid Buick Skylark at the EPA test site. Copyright CalTech Archives. All rights reserved.

Throughout the 60s, Wouk, an electrical engineer and veteran of the Manhattan Project, worked on a solution for reducing auto emissions. After exploring the potential of battery electric vehicles, he reached the conclusion that the best solution was to combine the low-emissions benefits of an electric car with the power of a gasoline engine to produce a hybrid vehicle. Wouk received little or no response to his ideas for a hybrid gas-electric car.

Wouk contacted several people he knew at the EPA, who encouraged him to propose his hybrid car ideas as part of the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program, which promised government support for emission-reducing auto technology. Initially, Erik Stork, head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mobile Source Air Pollution Control Program from 1970-78, refused to test the vehicle. When he relented, the hybrid passed the required EPA tests. A month later, Stork sent a report citing 75 reasons why the hybrid would not go into the next phase of support.

Now retired from the EPA, Stork, 78, recalled in an interview for HybridCars.com, “Hybrids are just not a very practical technology for automotive. That’s why it’s going nowhere. It certainly wasn’t going anywhere then. Even today, it’s marginal.”

Where’s the Outrage?

Wouk was forced to shelve his Buick Skylark hybrid prototype. Today, nearly 400,000 hybrids are running on American roads. The total cumulative health cost of auto-pollution-related illnesses since 1980—when Wouk’s hybrid design could have realistically been put into production—can be measured in the billions.

When the EPA changes take effect in 2007, the wide gap in mileage numbers between hybrids and conventional cars may be narrowed. But the real impact should be felt when the public realizes that every single vehicle on the road—from behemoth SUVs to modest compacts—is burning an imported, pollution-producing, non-renewable resource much faster than previously thought.