Ford Motor Co.’s discovery that its emission testing could be flawed highlights a measurement challenge that can easily lead to mistakes by carmakers, according to a clean-air advocate who helped expose Volkswagen Group’s cheating.
Automakers have a tough time estimating road load -- industry jargon for factors that can reduce fuel economy, including friction, weight and aerodynamics, said John German, an independent consultant who recently left the International Council on Clean Transportation. This means manufacturers can make errors when estimating the fuel economy and emissions on the many variations of vehicle they sell, he said.
It’s expensive to test every model and all configurations, so carmakers use computer modeling, and the EPA encourages it, German said. Regulators may be relatively lenient with Ford, since the company has flagged concerns to regulators before making firm determinations of problematic certifications, he said.
“It sounds like somebody messed up,” said German, whose team at ICCT helped discover Volkswagen’s diesel emissions cheat device in 2015. “But if Ford voluntarily came forward and will revise CO2 emissions calculations and mileage values, chances are there won’t even be any fines.”
Regulators have dramatically increased the level of inspection scrutiny on fuel economy since Volkswagen’s scandal emerged in the fall of 2015, and every car manufacturer has had to revisit how they certify emissions, according to the CEO of the largest U.S. auto dealership group.
Volkswagen’s diesel scandal was a “seismic event” for the industry and “nothing that’s happened since can compare,” Mike Jackson, the outgoing CEO of AutoNation Inc., said in a phone interview. Almost every carmaker has had some delays in new-model introductions due to certification issues, he said.
Jackson is turning over the CEO position to longtime retail executive Carl Liebert, effective March 11, and will become AutoNation's executive chairman.
Ford’s emissions matter will become more serious if Ford needs to revise its fuel-economy ratings, because consumers will take issue, German said. This would affect the labels that tell car buyers how much it costs to run a vehicle, and could spur consumer lawsuits.
In 2014, Ford revised the fuel economy ratings on six models and paid consumers as much as $1,050 to compensate for their lower mileage. The company said Thursday it hasn’t yet figured out if any of its labels or certifications need to be revised.