Want to know your car’s true mileage? It’s complicated

President Obama raised the hopes of American drivers when he unveiled fuel economy standards for motor vehicles in 2011.

“We’ve set an aggressive target, and the companies are stepping up to the plate,” he said. “By 2025, the average fuel economy of their vehicles will nearly double to almost 55 miles per gallon.”

But that’s not accurate.

By 2025, the average fuel economy of passenger vehicles will be closer to 44 mpg.

Why that 10 mpg gap? Blame goes to how the government measures automakers’ compliance with corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. The test relies on obsolete assumptions and produces inflated fuel economy values.

U.S. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acknowledge the methodology is outdated and even created an updated version in 2006 that is now used for EPA labels that tell car buyers what fuel efficiency they can expect.

But the test for ensuring CAFE compliance remains unchanged thanks to the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The law, which created CAFE, requires the government to stick with methodology devised more than 40 years ago.

With two procedures to measure fuel economy, the confusing result is a 20 percent gap between what consumers are told and what the government says it requires of automakers.

As cars become more advanced, that gap is likely to grow, giving advantages to automakers in regulations that are rarely noticed by car buyers.

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How Mazda ‘zoom-zoom’ turned fuel economy upside down

In 2007, Mazda Motor Corp. made a striking promise.

Though the company planned to continue exclusively using petroleum engines, its “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom Strategy” committed to providing “all customers who purchase Mazda vehicles with driving pleasure as well as outstanding environmental and safety performance.”

The statement may sound like a no-brainer in today’s marketing strategy, combining the three things customers want most.

But back then, the promise seemed untethered to the realities of mechanical engineering. The most efficient engines simply couldn’t produce the kind of power that more polluting engines could.

Five years later, Mazda delivered the impossible.

Its Skyactiv engine, still used by the company today, increased fuel efficiency and torque by 15 percent over previous models.

As a result, Mazda consistently tops U.S. EPA’s list for highest adjusted fuel economy performance. In model year 2014, Mazda had the lowest fleetwide adjusted carbon dioxide emissions. Its model year 2016 cars are all fully compliant with corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, something only the electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors Inc. has previously achieved.

Environmentalists, mechanical engineers and federal regulators alike have hailed Mazda’s innovations as a success. Skyactiv has received particular attention this summer when the government began a review of whether its CAFE standards for 2021 to 2025 are realistically achievable for automakers.

Advocates say Mazda proves compliance is possible, even as other manufacturers argue the standards are too technically difficult and expensive to meet.

“What Mazda has done is turn everything on its head,” said John German, senior fellow at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

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Fast-charge plugs do not fit all electric cars

A driver looking to quickly charge an electric vehicle can’t necessarily plug into the closest fast-charging station.

Many won’t fit the car.

While automakers have agreed on uniform plug standards for slower types of charging used at home and work, they have not done so for what’s known as DC fast charging, which can fill a battery in less than 30 minutes.

German and American automakers use different connection standards from Japanese and other Asian manufacturers, while Tesla Motors Inc. uses its own system entirely.

Critics say the disparities hinder widespread adoption of electric vehicles, complicating plugging in.

“It’s like if you could only get gas for your Subaru at Sunoco stations and nowhere else,” said clean transportation advocate Chelsea Sexton. “Who would buy that car?”

Yet automakers say they have no interest in developing uniform charging standards and dismiss the implication that different plugs could be slowing sector growth. Instead, many are racing to build out fast-charging infrastructure that fits their cars before new models are released in 2018.

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