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Drivers, governmental agencies and original equipment manufacturers continue to be frustrated by the difference between the mileage figures shown on new-vehicle window stickers, which are based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency testing protocols, and the cars real-world fuel consumption.

A case in point: In early November, EPA announced it had found discrepancies in the fuel economy claims for more than 900,000 Hyundais and Kias – about one-third of units sold in the United States since 2010. The sister brands had overstated their miles per gallon by about 3 percent, and had to relabel all of their 2012 and 2013 models. Hyundai knocked down most by 1 or 2 mpg, but took a 6 mpg whack at the Kia Souls rating.

EPA said it had received a number of consumer complaints about the Hyundai mileage estimates, which led it to audit the vehicles test results. Hyundai and Kia acknowledged making procedural errors when running EPAs fuel economy tests, apologized to customers, and moved to reimburse them for their added fuel costs for as long as they own the car. Ouch!

This costly mistake reminds us why automakers insist on getting and documenting every ounce of fuel economy improvement they can. Engine oils may deliver only 1 or 2 percent better fuel economy (which is invisible to individual drivers), but thats vital to an OEM.

Of course, you and I know that your mileage may vary. No two vehicles will get the same mileage, primarily because of the person behind the wheel. Its really amazing how much the driving habits of each of us affects how much fuel we burn. In fact, the American Trucking Association found that fuel economy in big rigs can vary by as much as 35 percent, based on the drivers technique.

It reminds me of a film (thats right, a film not a video) from my high school drivers education class many moons ago. In it, Goofy (of Disney fame) portrayed a mild-mannered gentleman by the name of Mr. Walker. However, when he got behind the wheel of his car he became Mr. Wheeler, who was maniacal and drove with a lead foot, one arm hanging out of the window, and was generally a menace. The lesson for us young minds was not to be aggressive and reckless when driving. But it wasnt to conserve fuel, which only cost around 25 cents per gallon. Fast forward to today. We still need to be courteous on the road, but with prices approaching $4 per gallon the fuel economy lesson is much more significant.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on the subject found that the variation in fuel economy results and consumer satisfaction were enormous: Mike Young, 24, says he gets about 22 miles per gallon in the city and as much as 30 to 31 mpg on the highway in his 2002 Nissan Altima V6. That is considerably better than the cars 17 city, 24 highway rating based on the EPA testing protocols. Mr. Young, who works in public relations in the Philadelphia area, says he drives fairly fast on the highway, but tries to hold a constant speed. Im not one of those people whos on the gas and off the gas.

However, there is always an opposing view, the article went on. On the other end of the spectrum is Brent Wardle of Meridian, Idaho, who says hes planning to trade in his 2012 Hyundai Sonata hybrid because hes only averaging about 22 mpg in a car that in 2012 was rated by the EPA at 35 city, 40 mpg highway.

Youve got to suspect that some variation in driving style is at work here. There are other factors too, but its gotten to the point that the feds and the OEMs are working on modified test protocols to try to minimize the differences.

The EPA protocols are pretty dated, originally going back to the mid-1970s. In 2008 the EPA added new tests which simulated highway speeds up to 80 mph, as well as driving in hot and cold weather. Its also considering tests using gasoline cut with 10 percent ethanol, like most commercially available fuel, instead of the pure gasoline prescribed now. The 10 percent ethanol blends tend to drop mileage by 3 to 4 percent, the agency says.

So where does that leave us? I think that its important to review the drivers for fuel economy, the steps that have been taken to date, and those coming in the near future.

First, the drivers. The original fuel economy man-dates came at the time of the first Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, a time when fuel economy was around 17 mpg. Long waiting lines at the service station; rationing (anybody remember odd/even days for fueling? Anybody?); and the cost of gasoline rising from 25 cents a gallon to 65 cents were some of the outcomes. There was another oil crunch in the early 1980s, and since then gasoline has steadily risen in price. The national average at the pump as I write this is $3.68/gallon for regular.

Congress reacted almost reflexively in 1975 and dictated that 27.5 mpg would be the corporate average fuel economy goal by the 1985 model year. In the meantime, all the technical details needed to be developed, including test procedures as well as how to calculate CAFE. Since then, the mantra has been to reduce dependence on foreign oil, even as the light-vehicle fleet continued to grow.

Weve lived with CAFE of 27.5 mpg for the past 30 years but beginning in 2015 new cars sold must meet a 35.5 mpg target, with additional emissions requirements. In 2025 the mandate rises to a staggering 55 mpg. (Heavy-duty trucks face their own mileage hurdles, which Ill save for another day.)

I did some basic math, with an eye to getting a handle on the impact of these rules and regulations on the average drivers fuel costs. For simplicity, I used $4 per gallon as the base price for all years. Table 1, above, shows the results. In Europe, fuel economy is reported as gallons per 100 miles (actually, liters/100 km). While this doesnt change as dramatically as mpg, it gives a clear picture of the fuel cost of driving. There are advocates for changing the EPA numbers to this configuration.

Recognize that the U.S. light-duty vehicle fleet is around 250 million units strong and that their average age is about 11 years now, the rate of replacement of vehicles is probably about 3 to 4 percent annually (barring a recession or other impact on income). That means many vehicles on the road will still be consuming fuel at the 27.5 mpg rate in 2015. In fact, there will still be significant numbers of these gas hogs on the road in 2025.

But if you carry my calculations out to their logical conclusion, a compliant 2025 model would save more than $6,000 worth of gasoline over its life versus its 2015 counterpart. And even more if fuel prices go up (as history says they will).

To give the devil his due, without regulations I really doubt that current engines would have become so efficient so quickly; otherwise we might still have large numbers of big, carbureted V-8s on our roads, instead of sophisticated V-6s with fuel injection controlled by amazingly complex on-board computers. I continue to be awed by the design improvements in engines and transmissions that have occurred in my time as an industry participant.

Engine and transmission lubricants have played their small but significant part in this evolution. Engine oils have become much lighter in viscosity and much more advanced in additive technology. Whod have thought that SAE 0W-20 would be the oil viscosity rising star today, when the oil of the 1980s was SAE 10W-30 and SAE 5W-30 led in the 90s and even into the early part of this century? Now we see Honda specifying SAE 0W-16. Obviously, the lower the viscosity, the lower the frictional drag and churning effects of the oil.

When you look at the impact on fuel economy from the engine oil, you may be tempted to say, so what? The requirements for various grades of current ILSAC GF-5 or API SN engine oil to be labeled as resource conserving (per the American Petroleum Institutes fuel economy standards) are shown in Table 2.

Basically, the impact of an SAE 0W-20 on fuel economy at the current 27.5 mpg would be 0.7 mpg new and 0.3 mpg after 100 hours of aging. Not much, it seems – but it does improve the OEMs opportunity to successfully certify engines for the EPA rating. They also are required to use widely available, competitively price commercial engine oils in the test programs which determine CAFE. This eliminates the use of oils which might give better fuel economy but which would not be available to consumers.

Similarly, automatic transmission fluids have undergone significant advances in the same time frame. They now have much more durable viscosity retention and better frictional characteristics as well as somewhat lower viscosity to capture every bit of longevity and fuel saving in the transmission. Drain intervals for ATF are now of such duration – 100,000 miles or longer – that you might change the fluid once or twice during the average 11 years you own the vehicle. New transmission designs are counting on these durable lubricants to protect them and to maximize their efficiency.

The base oil and additive technologies to achieve these impressive results have been evolving right along with the engines and transmissions. In fact, the engineering changes have driven the introduction of better base stocks, new antioxidants, and improved friction modifiers, antiwear agents and dispersants.

For me, the bottom line is that the OEMs and oil/additive industry have worked together (sometimes contentiously and sometimes cooperatively) to develop superior technologies to make our lives a little better and more luxurious. The modern automobile is a technological wonder, so enjoy the ride.

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