One of the most widespread fictions of our modern world is car fuel-economy numbers. We all know that it is almost impossible to reach the fuel consumption figures that cars advertise and with very good reason. The cars that are put into the EU tests have been prepared within an inch of their lives to get the lowest possible mileage and emissions results. So the manufacturers don’t just turn off the air-conditioning and retune the engines. They put specially thin oil in the engine, they tape over door handles to cut wind-resistance, they pump up the low-resistance tyres and even disconnect the alternator – everything to game the system.
You could say that since they all do it, this does not matter much. But now the EU, reasonably enough you might think, wants to cut emissions even further. The manufacturers are resisting it, again reasonably enough given their objectives. But shouldn’t the tests themselves be made more realistic? They date back to the 1970s, and if you genuinely want to improve efficiency and the environment the sensible thing is to have tests that reflect how people generally drive.
But of course this is not just a problem for the motor industry. It is a problem for just about every economic activity: if you set targets, you distort outcomes. You see this with hospital waiting lists, where GPs have to wait to get someone onto a waiting list. You see it with schools, which achieve higher grades for their students if they put them into “soft” subjects.
On the other hand, however, you have to measure if you want to manage, just as if you want to improve vehicle emissions you have to set limits. So what is the answer?
There is no simple one but there is perhaps a way forward. Part of that is to make tests more realistic; part is to align targets with what you really want to achieve; and part is to step back a little from the obsession with testing – and apply common sense instead.