October SkepTalk - A Unicorn in Your Tank: Magic Tablets That Won't Improve Gas Mileage - Yau-Man Chan

Yau-Man ChanYau-Man ChanMost of us have seen ads for questionable pills, liquids, and powders that promise to give our bodies an extra advantage. Whether it be weight loss, immune system boost, fuller, thicker hair, or younger looking skin, there’s a quick fix being sold for it. In today’s economy, youthfulness and good health are joined at the top of our panic list with a new concern: better gas mileage. But don’t worry! There’s a quick fix for that, too! Or is there?

This topic was addressed at the October 12th, 2011 SkepTalk by our own Yau-Man Chan, scientific instrument engineer, Skeptiblog author, and star of “Survivor Fiji” in a discussion of the bad economics (and even worse chemistry) of automotive snake oil.

Yau-Man began his talk by introducing us to a product called EnviroTabs®, sold as “an organometallic metal conditioner that acts as a burn-rate modifier that catalyzes fuel.” In short, its makers claim that EnviroTabs® improves fuel economy, saving you money. Using it is simple; just drop a tablet into your tank on each fill-up, and you’ll average 10%-20% better gas mileage. That’s the claim made on their web site, anyway, and the sort of thing that deserves some scientific investigation. Luckily, Yau-Man provided it.

First, as Yau-Man pointed out, it’s telling that EnviroTabs® is sold via multilevel marketing (MLM), a marketing strategy in which salespeople are compensated for selling the product and also for creating a downline of other distributors by recruiting new salespeople into the sales hierarchy. Why, Yau-Man asked, use this sort of strategy? Since gas prices are so high in the U.S., and are even higher in other countries, why would the makers not simply sell their product on the open market? Although their marketing strategy says nothing about the efficacy of the product, it does raise suspicions.

The engineering of modern automobile engines is as competitive as it is complex. As Yau-Man pointed out numerous agencies, from the California Air Resources Board to the Environmental Protection Agency, put pressure on car manufacturers to lower emissions and to improve gas mileage as much as possible. Numerous gasoline additives, the addition of microcomputer Engine Control Units, and various other technological achievements have improved the internal combustion engine greatly over the past several decades, and have been hailed as wondrous scientific achievements. Any additive that improves gas mileage as much as EnviroTabs® claims to would be a multi-billion dollar industry, and one highly sought after. Multilevel marketing would simply slow down the distribution process to a snail’s pace, not to mention being completely unnecessary.

As for the actual science behind EnviroTabs®, the picture is rather bleak. A number of professional organizations and industry insiders, including the AAA, Consumer Reports, Popular Mechanics, the EPA, the Federal Trade Commission, and even Click and Clack (of NPR’s “Car Talk”) say that gasoline additives do NOT work. The EnviroTabs® website offers little useful scientific information, and a great many confusing statements. For instance, they claim that their product “changes the surface heat absorption characteristics of metal,” but then also state that it “works with all types of fuels,” including diesel, even though a diesel engine is compression-based only, and produces very little heat.

Yau-Man ended his talk with the following 2006 statement by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott about a product making similar claims called BioPerformance®: “BioPerformance claims its top-secret gas pills can save consumers big bucks at the gas pump. These claims are bogus; the pill does absolutely nothing to improve gas mileage. The company is merely a smokescreen to trigger the recruitment of more and more paying members into what appears to be an illegal pyramid scheme.” One year after being shut down by Attorney General Abbott, BioPerformance® returned, and began its multi-million dollar company after paying the state of Texas several million dollars in fines, and agreeing to stop making claims that were unsupported by science.

The future of EnviroTabs® is uncertain, but one thing is clear. The only good defense against being taken in by snake oil salesmen is to rely upon critical thinking and the scientific method to evaluate such claims.