General Motors announced with great fanfare last week that its new Chevy Volt will get 230 miles per gallon. Not to be outdone, Nissan quickly announced that its new electric car, the Leaf, will get 367 mpg. If you believe that, we have a couple of auto companies in Detroit to sell you.
The car companies are using the Environmental Protection Agency's draft methodology to figure out their fantastical mileage numbers. The hitch is that mpg estimates measure the efficiency of engines that run on petroleum. In an era of electric cars -- when vehicles supposedly won't be propelled by gasoline-powered internal-combustion engines -- these estimates are nonsensical.
The extremely high mpg ratings do not mean that an engine would be consuming less energy but rather that the car would be electric, with some occasional use of gasoline. The propaganda makes it sound as if the total emissions generated by electric cars would be very small. However, how "green" a car really is depends on how the electricity is generated. That dirty little detail can vary tremendously depending on whether the energy source for the electricity is, say, coal, natural gas, nuclear power or something else.
The EPA disregards the fact that electricity is not totally clean energy. When an electric car is plugged into the wall to charge up, its power often comes from a plant burning coal. General Motors designed the Volt to have a meager 40-mile range on an electric charge because the Department of Transportation estimates that almost 80 percent of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles a day. The draft EPA mpg estimates count those first 40 miles as if they used no energy because the car would have been powered off of a wall socket, not by gasoline.
The fudged mpg estimates of electric cars get people to think they are using less energy. On paper, the Volt appears to use a fifth of the energy consumed by gasoline-electric hybrids such as the Ford Fusion, Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. Or that the Nissan Leaf uses about a seventh as much energy. That isn't true. Electric cars simply use a different type of energy.
There is an upside in that electric cars might give automobile companies cover to continue to make gas guzzlers. Under the latest federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirement, carmakers have to produce vehicle fleets that average at least 42 mpg by 2016. Companies with an average below that will have to pay a tax to the government. In order to avoid that tax, they will be willing to sell cars listed as having a high mpg at a loss. Each Volt sold will let GM sell nine cars that get 21 mpg without having to face the tax.
Given how stringent fuel-economy rules have become, car companies surely are enthusiastic about these inflated mpg estimates for electric cars because the figures put less development pressure on transforming the rest of their product lines into smaller, less powerful, boring econo-boxes. We don't mind this loophole so long as it allows automakers to continue producing the types of larger cars and trucks most people want to buy. If we can still have our Corvettes and Mustangs, the government can pretend the Leaf gets 1,000 mpg.