Certified fuel economy? The joke is on the consumers

Recently, a study done by non-profit organisation International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) revealed that the gap between the fuel economy claims made by companies has widened with the actual economy that users got in Europe. It pointed that the gap, which stood at just 10% a decade ago now stood at 25% with luxury German car brands the most culpable.

The lower fuel economy has a direct impact on actual emissions for these cars, a more critical issue in developed markets. BMW for example reported emissions figures for its vehicles on average 30% lower than those found in actual use while Volkswagen AG’s luxury unit Audi had the second widest disparity, with reported emissions some 28% below actual use. Mercedes showed a gap of 26%.

ICCT said the malaise is all encompassing. Figures for emissions from Toyota vehicles were found to be about 15% less than in real use and Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen’s published data was about 16% lower than for vehicles on the road.

An exercise like this has never been conducted nor attempted in India but that does not take away from the fact that the certified fuel economy figures for cars here are equally misleading. In fact these figures that are based on so called “scientific test runs” conducted by Pune based Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI), are nothing but a farce. A sick joke at the altar of consumers.

The divergence between actual fuel consumption figures that an everyday commuter gets and what the experts at ARAI claim varies across brands. Sometimes quite wildly. The Maruti Swift, Honda Brio and City, Toyota Innova and Skoda Fabia are for example reported to be nearly as fuel efficient as ARAI would want us to believe. Similarly, a Hyundai i10, Nissan Micra, Renault Scala and Ford Figo are often found to be at the other end of the spectrum.

I must reiterate here that these are not scientifically collated figures but random observation from real car users across automotive portals in cyber sphere. Unlike ICCT in Europe, none of the research firms have the capability or the guts to highlight these issues.

The voluntary disclosure of fuel economy figures that began in 2009, was itself an act of posturing by the industry rather than any honest endeavor at transparency. Back then, there was a lot of heat on the industry by various genuine and dubious stakeholders to form guidelines on a star rating system for cars..aka consumer durables like air conditioners, refrigerators and television sets. In its bid to thwart the government from forcing the star rating down its throat, the industry decided to make the actual fuel economy figures under test conditions public. “Voluntarily.” ARAI was only too happy to oblige.

Fuel economy figures by itself are a messy debate. In the paranoiac US market, many car companies have entangled themselves in law suits over bloated claims. The latest that comes to mind is Hyundai Kia absorbed in settling a class action suit in the US that is expected to cost the Korean giant a hefty $ 450 million.

Ironically, despite being a hyper sensitive market when it comes to fuel efficiency and cost of ownership, Indian consumers do not enjoy these benefits. You cannot take your company to court on the ground that your car is returning a mileage figure that is half of what the ARAI induced company claims. They are all saved by the proverbial asterisks that these figures are derived under specific test conditions. What these conditions are: the consumer does not know and the company will not tell. It may as well be going round and round a desolate well paved patch of tarmac at the backyard of ARAI’s office.

Yet, my hunch is a lot many of us know it all too well not to believe in these bogus claims. But for the sake of those who do not, perhaps there should be a full stop to this farce.

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