Researcher Claims Real-World Economy and Lab Testing Are Miles Apart

One of my guiltiest of pleasures is telling anyone trapped with me in a confined space for more than thirty seconds that practical fuel economy hasn’t improved in a meaningful way since 2014. While the EPA has raised corporate economy estimates, consumer spending has skewed toward larger and less economical models — invalidating the technological gains made in a vehicular catch-22.

However, some researchers have also begun calling the technologies focused on cutting emissions and saving fuel into question. We already know that lab tests can be gamed through clever engineering. But we don’t drive vehicles on a rolling road and the differences between the lab and the street are immense. Emissions Analytics, an independent company based in the United Kingdom, has tested more than 500 vehicles in the United States since 2013 and believes a change in testing venue can make all the difference.

The firm conducts real-world analyses under normal on-road driving conditions using portable testing gear. Its says its goal is to suss out which trends in the automotive space actually have a meaningful impact on economy — and which are bunk. 

According to Automotive News, Emissions Analytics plans to release its full findings on U.S. vehicles in early October. Nick Molden, the company’s founder and CEO, says EA wants to provide the public with an accurate and unbiased look into the true fuel economy and CO2 emissions of the vehicles they’re interested in and their true impact on the environment.

“You can only decide if you have the right information,” Molden explained to Automotive News. “The EPA sticker is — I would say — good up to a point, but we can give a lot more information.”

That sounds more like a sales pitch than anything else, but he may have a point. Turbochargers are wonderful creations but they don’t provide much in the way of fuel savings when you constantly hammer the throttle. EA is convinced that most lab testing doesn’t provide an authentic driving experience, where turbos would be allowed to spool more freely. It is also concerned that the growing industry trend toward smaller module engines is approaching a tipping point.

“Downsizing is a good thing up to a point,” Molden said. “You go past a certain inflection point and actually you can find that the real-world mpg will actually get worse if you go too small … As soon as you start going below 2 liters, that’s where we start seeing the gaps open up between EPA sticker and real world.”

Instead of relying on microscopic motors offset by forced induction, Molden says automakers would be better served by attempting to lighten vehicles utilizing hybridized powertrains. While that’s easier said than done in a society currently obsessed with SUVs and crossovers, an under-stressed engine will always perform better — regardless of size.

He also likes standard hybrids over plug-in EVs since they’re cheaper to produce and easier to live with. They’re also not incentivized by most governments, so their sales amid cheap gasoline reflect a baseline of sustainable market demand. Other technologies Emissions Analytics says it’s willing to openly endorse are multi-speed transmissions and tires that focus on efficiency, rather than dynamics or appearance.

“There’s so much good technology out there,” Molden said. “There are genuine efficiency improvements happening. The marketplace just needs to know so people can then choose the right vehicles when they’re in the showroom.”

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