It’s time for the EPA to admit the system of allowing and trusting automakers to self-certify cars and light trucks for fuel economy and emissions standards no longer works.
The system, in place since the 1970s, works like this: Automakers test their own vehicles and submit the findings to the EPA, where engineers review and usually approve them. The EPA also randomly tests between 10 and 15 percent of new vehicles yearly for fuel economy and emissions at its Ann Arbor, Mich., lab.
But today, with 40 brands selling more than 300 nameplates in the U.S., there is no way the EPA can test them all. The agency doesn’t have the manpower, machinery, time or budget to certify every variant of every vehicle every year.
And so a sort of honor system has developed wherein automakers test competitive vehicles internally to ensure they meet the ratings stated on the window label.
When I started working at Ford in 2010, my very first assignment was to look into what highway fuel economy consumers and reviewers were reporting for the Chevrolet Equinox crossover.
Ford engineers tested the Equinox and could not duplicate the 32 mpg on the highway that General Motors claimed on the window sticker. Ford’s Escape that year got 28 mpg on the highway. Ford engineers needed the Equinox’s real-world data to ask GM how it managed to achieve 32 mpg.
Despite their competitive public posturing, behind the scenes, automakers are usually very cordial, congenial, friendly and cooperative with one another.
And until recently, the EPA’s strategy of randomly selecting vehicles to test -- with an assist from automakers to keep one another straight -- worked pretty well.
But since 2012, five automakers -- Ford, BMW, Kia, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz -- have been forced to lower fuel economy ratings because drivers in the real world couldn’t get close to the fuel efficiency achieved in the lab world, where new vehicles are tested.
And now comes Volkswagen’s diesel debacle.
Even after the EPA and the U.S. Justice Department get done punishing VW, the problem with self-certification likely will remain. What to do about it?
Here are some ideas:
- Once an automaker violates the EPA’s rules, causing a rating to be restated or a vehicle to fail to meet emissions requirements, the company loses the right to self-certify. And going forward, it must pay all costs to certify each vehicle every year. Since the EPA does not have the equipment and manpower to do this, third-party companies such as AVL, FEV, Mahle, Bosch and Continental could do the testing with strict EPA oversight.
- The EPA could hire more engineers and station them permanently at automakers’ testing facilities to supervise testing.
- To reduce discrepancies and variability, tighter rules need to be written that specify and require that each automaker use the same testing machinery, calibrated the same way; that they use the same fuel from one single supplier; and that they test vehicles at the same altitude. All of these factors can cause fuel economy and emissions results to vary.
The engineers I know would never cheat, lie or game the system. Engineers are some of the most creative people you’ll ever meet. Give them a problem and tell them there is little money and no time to solve it, and you will see amazing -- aboveboard -- things happen.
But with escalating fuel economy standards and tightening emissions standards, the system is breaking down farther up the food chain.