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Realistic car-mileage ratings could help save gasoline, group says

WASHINGTON—Forcing automakers to meet mileage standards based on "real world" driving conditions could help Americans buy less gasoline and reduce dependence on foreign oil, an environmental group said in a report to be released Thursday.

The Environmental Working Group, a private, nonprofit scientific-research center, said realistic fuel-efficiency standards could save 710 million barrels of oil annually.

That's equivalent to 20 percent of the oil the United States imported last year, according to the study. It's also 33 billion gallons of gasoline that consumers wouldn't have to purchase, the group said.

"As gas prices hit $3 a gallon and looks like it will continue to rise, and we're in a war in the Middle East, and everyone is very concerned about energy independence and reducing energy costs for families, the biggest single solution to the problem is hiding in plain sight," said Richard Wiles, the working group's senior vice president. "Higher-mileage cars and trucks."

The study says automakers aren't meeting government miles-per-gallon standards, which Congress first set in 1975.

The Environmental Protection Agency adjusted the standards in 1985, requiring that new passenger cars average 27.5 mpg and light trucks average from 20.0 to 21.7 mpg. Based on reports and data from various federal agencies, the working group says the "real world mpg" is closer to 21.7 for cars and 16.3 for trucks and SUVs.

Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Auto Alliance, an industry trade association whose members include General Motors and Toyota, agreed that the tests needed to reflect "real world" driving conditions better. But she defended the numbers on new-car mpg stickers as "useful to consumers for comparison shopping."

"Advertisements say that `your mileage may vary,'" Bergquist said. "I've found that consumers understand many things can affect your mileage."

The study says the government's fuel efficiency tests bear little resemblance to the way people drive. They don't account for faster acceleration rates, higher highway speeds or accessories such as air conditioning; all of them can reduce fuel efficiency, according to the study.

And because the tests are conducted on a dynamometer, which measures an engine's performance, and not on the road, "automakers do not have to account for a variety of conditions that can reduce fuel efficiency including roadway roughness, hills, wind, tire pressure, heavier loads (trailers, cargo, multiple passengers), the effects of ethanol in gasoline and others," according to the study.

The EPA said earlier this year that it intended to take those factors into account and lower city mpg estimates by 10 percent to 20 percent compared with current stickers, and highway estimates by 5 percent.

But EPA spokesman John Millet said changing what's on the sticker wouldn't change fuel economy standards.

"This is purely about consumer information," he said.

The EPA didn't address the study's contention that automakers aren't meeting the current standards.

Congress has been debating CAFE—Corporate Average Fuel Economy—standards for years, but it has never been able to marshal the support to raise them. Auto industry supporters argue that tougher standards could cost jobs.

But public anger over rising gasoline prices may have tempered some of the long-standing opposition.

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(Goldstein reports for The Kansas City Star.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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