Consumers deserve correct fuel consumption figures

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Cars

Diabetes is a chronic disease which especially hits the EU's workforce [Shutterstock]

Outdated EU testing requirements allow car makers to advertise fuel consumption figures that bear little relation to real life performance on the road. Not only are these false claims but the testing weaknesses are also bringing into doubt the performance of the automobile sector to cut its carbon footprint, writes Monique Goyens.

Monique Goyens is Director General of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.

Last month our UK member Which? published the results of their tests conducted on 200 new cars and found that all but three of them fell short of their official fuel consumption figures, resulting in British drivers spending around €187 more on fuel per year. This news is however not just representative of the UK, but highlights a familiar problem across the EU and one that demands long overdue action.

The problem has actually become such a consumer bête noire, that earlier this year our Italian member organisation Altroconsumo went a step further and launched two class actions against Fiat and Volkswagen. Altroconsumo conducted tests in line with official requirements on two of the best selling cars in Europe and found their results were between 18 – 50% worse on fuel consumption than what the car makers have been advertising.

The problem here relates specifically to outdated EU testing requirements, known as the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) that includes numerous well documented loopholes which car makers exploit and in turn allows them to advertise fuel consumption figures that bear little relation to real life performance on the road.

For instance, car makers remove the wing mirrors during the tests, pump up the tyres of a car above recommended settings and use special lubricants to reduce friction. In combination, these tricks can have a substantial impact on the fuel consumption performance of a vehicle and in turn make new car owners blink in disbelief when filling-up for gas.

Questionable carbon cutting

Not only are these false claims a direct concern to a motorist’s wallet, but the testing weaknesses are also bringing into doubt the performance of the automobile sector to cut its carbon footprint.

Last month also saw the news of the European Environment Agency reporting on the performance of the automobile sector to cut CO2 emissions and highlighted the achievement of reaching their EU CO2 target for 2015 ahead of schedule. We would have been over the moon with the results of this report had it not been for the nagging assumption that these great CO2 figures achieved in the laboratory are not being matched on the road.

The quest for lower carbon cars is good for consumers as CO2 reductions correlate with improved fuel consumption performance and can thus reap attractive cuts in fuel costs. But without effective monitoring, the EU’s CO2 targets for 2015 and 2021 are badly undermined. Getting the monitoring right is essential not only for the short term but also for setting ambitious yet feasible targets for 2025 and beyond.

Restoring confidence amongst consumers

First and foremost, the Worldwide harmonized Light vehicles Test Procedure (WLTP), a new test to replace the inadequate NEDC which was adopted under the auspices of the UN, must be made operational across Europe from 2017. Coupled with this, a robust conformity regime is needed to ensure that what car makers achieve in the laboratory can be replicated by independent authorities for vehicles that are on-sale and on-the-road.

On top of this, the EU’s car labelling Directive needs updating urgently. This again has been long awaited, but lessons can now be learnt based on Member State best practises, and the focus should be on ensuring that consumers are given information that really counts to them, specifically on the financial benefits they can accrue from the most fuel efficient vehicles and keeping the figures simple for easy cross car comparison. On this latter point, it is the need for further harmonisation in line with the EU’s alphabetic colour coded Energy Label and the ranking of vehicles on their absolute emissions, as opposed to a relative model whereby a gas guzzling SUV can appear as efficient as a small city compact car.

The right climate for consumers

Needless to say, everyone drives differently and on the road results will always differ to some extent from laboratory based tests. However, the extent of this differentiation is important because many consumers strongly consider the fuel consumption performance when buying a car and the running costs are a major expense to motorists, even at lower oil prices.

Europe needs to put more focus on measures that work in the consumer’s interest. Ensuring that fuel economy figures bare a closer resemblance to real world results and that a comparison between cars can be assured is essential, not only to claw back consumer trust but also for the sake of our climate.

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