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Ford Motor Co. is investigating whether incorrect computer modeling might have caused it to misstate fuel economy and emissions for government testing.

The automakerhas hired an outside firm to investigate the vehicle "road load" specifications used in the company's testing and applications for emissions and fuel economy standards, Kim Pittel, Ford's president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering, said in a statement Thursday.

The investigation has so far determined that the company did not use any so-called "defeat devices" on its vehicles to dupe emissions tests, Ford spokesman Said Deep said. Ford and the investigative team have not yet determined whether the issue affected the automaker's fuel economy labels or emissions certifications.

Deep characterized the investigation as in its "early days."

Ford officials were alerted to the possible issue by "a handful of employees" through its internal Speak Up channel, according to the company statement. 

Road load is essentially the force put on a vehicle while driving at a constant speed over a level surface. A lighter load in the mathematical equation could result in a better fuel economy than stated.

The automaker has notified the Environmental Protection Agency, and is starting to evaluate its vehicles. The first will be the 2019 Ranger, which currently boasts a best-in-class EPA-estimated 23-miles-per-gallon combined fuel economy.

"We believe that trust in our brand is earned by acting with integrity and transparency," Pittel said in a statement. "As part of this, we have a process for looking at how we perform and behave in our broad and complex company."

Industry analyst Michelle Krebs said it's hard to tell at this point how significant the investigation or its findings might be. Ford did not say Thursday how many vehicles might have been affected.

"There have been numerous automakers in trouble for inaccurately stating fuel economy," said Krebs, an analyst with Cox Automotive. "Ford is being very cautious. This is against the backdrop of a lot of stuff that has happened with a lot of automakers regarding emissions and fuel economy."

She said this initially seems less severe than recent scandals at other automakers regarding fuel economy testing, because this arose internally at Ford and the company is investigating itself.

Emissions-tests cheating has been an issue for large automakers in recent years, most notably Volkswagen AG.

Last May, former Volkswagen AG CEO Martin Winterkorn was indicted on federal conspiracy charges to defraud the United States, to commit wire fraud and to violate the Clean Air Act for his alleged role in "Dieselgate," in which Volkswagen cheated U.S. diesel emissions tests by using defeat devices. Those devices caused pollution-control systems to work properly when being tested on dynamometers, but turned off those systems on the open road.

In January, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV was required to pay about $800 million to settle allegations from federal regulators that the company used software on about 104,000 diesel-powered pickups and SUVs that's similar to “defeat devices” used by VW to cheat U.S. emissions-testing.

The government said then the stiff penalties were intended as a warning to other "bad actors" that might be tempted to violate laws protecting the environment and health. Fiat Chrysler was not required to admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

The Environmental Protection Agency confirmed Thursday that Ford had alerted the agency of its investigation on Wednesday, and said it was too early to comment.

"We take the potential issues seriously," EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said, "and are following up with the company to fully understand the circumstances behind this disclosure."

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Detroit News staff writer Keith Laing contributed

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