Fuel miracle? Caveat emptor!

by Wally Northway

Published: May 22,2006

In September 2005, Popular Mechanics ran an article titled “Looking for a Miracle,” which chronicled the magazine’s testing of a handful of after-market devices and technology that purport to boost fuel economy in automobiles. These gadgets claimed to accomplish this through technologies and processes that range from augmenting air flow to the engine to magnets that break down clusters of fuel molecules for more efficient combustion.

Results were discouraging to say the least. Of all the products tested, Popular Mechanics’ study found not one to be as effective as promised, and one proved dangerous — it caught fire. In conclusion, writer Mike Allen said, “Any device that claims quantum-level increases (in fuel economy) needs to be examined with considerable skepticism.”

With escalating prices at the gas pump, emotions are running high among consumers. Many who perhaps would have indeed been skeptical about fuel-saving devices in the past may now be giving them consideration now. So, is there any after-market technology that warrants consumers’ attention — and their money?

Crap shoot

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of after-market products available today that claim to boost fuel mileage. An online search found relatively few that had scientific, objective data to back their claims. However, many have earned testimonials from customers who found the product to be successful, sometimes wildly so.

According to Dr. Randall German, director of the Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems (CAVS) at Mississippi State University in Starkville, this is typical among developers of these devices. “We are a magnet for individuals who have products they have developed that they claim boosts fuel economy,” German said. “Most of the time, they haven’t done their due diligence, and don’t have the money to do that due diligence. They have testimonials, people who have used the product and claim it works. But, there is no scientific data to back it up.”

German has prior, firsthand experience in this area. Before coming to CAVS, German was involved in a start-up company offering a fuel-saving technology that was actually built from a concept that dated back to the 1940s. Over the years, the product had garnered a wealth of users who sang the technology’s praises.

The company promptly incorporated, and capital was raised.

The product had testimonials, but no objective evidence to substantiate its claim of a 5% savings in fuel. Unfortunately, the dream stopped at the laboratory. The product simply did not perform as anticipated. With that, the company folded.

“I had 110,000 shares in that company,” said German, who can laugh about it now.

As with German’s defunct company, many entrepreneurs in the fuel-saving technology field are not scam artists. They believe their product is effective, and are eager for science to validate their claims.

However, others may be less scrupulous. German said CAVS, which has been in operation now for approximately 30 months, has been contacted by fuel-economy product developers who want testing, but on their terms.

“It has to be testing with controls,” German said. “Testing without them is not scientific. And, many of these entrepreneurs don’t want controls. For instance, they don’t want the vehicle run without the device, and then run with the device. Many just want the vehicle run with the device on and nothing else.”

Guaranteed solution — maintenance

Online, fuel-economy devices have found a home. Some products have their own Web site. Many others fall into the “as seen on TV” category.

In the brick-and-mortar world, these products are not nearly as plentiful. A check with a few national automotive parts stores found some carried more than one of these after-market devices while others carried none at all. NAPA carries fuel-saving devices, including the Tornado Fuel Saver, which is far from new — it’s been on the market for years now and claims it can add up to 28% in fuel economy. (The Tornado Fuel Saver was one of the products tested by Popular Mechanics.)

CarQuest, on the other hand, sells none of these products. “I don’t get many people in here asking about fuel-saving products,” said Mike Bowman, counter person at CarQuest in Richland. “People are always asking how they can extend their gas mileage. I haven’t really noticed any increase now that gas prices are high.

“The only real way to guarantee better fuel mileage is proper vehicle maintenance. A computer programmer might be able to help, but…”

Bowman hit on the main challenge in trying to find ways to extend gas mileage. Today’s vehicles with their on-board computers and emission-control systems make efforts at after-market increases in fuel economy difficult. The computing muscle aboard vehicles has become more and more sophisticated and complex. In the days of the carburetor and before pollution-control systems were inaugurated, tweaking an engine’s fuel or air flow for better gas mileage was relatively simple. Those “shade tree” efforts are now a thing of the past. On-board computers simply do not allow for much tweaking.

“In essence, most of these products are trying to trick the computer,” Bowman said.

The consensus of everyone who was interviewed for this story is that the only sure way of stretching stops at the gas station is proper vehicle maintenance. A tuned engine, clean filters, properly inflated tires, etc., are guaranteed to increase fuel economy. Coupled with such driving and operating habits as not running the air conditioning needlessly and taking it a little easier on the accelerator are time-proven, scientifically-backed answers to fuel economy issues.

As far as after-market products go, German offered this analogy and advice. “It’s a lot like venture capital,” he said. “You always hear the good news first. It’s always later that you hear the not-so-good news. I would be skeptical about any of these products that do not have scientific data to back them up.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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