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Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency submitted three fuel economy label concepts for public review. One of those designs—referred to in the agency’s seven-page brochure as “Label 1″—was a large sticker with a prominently displayed letter grade that would be given to every auto model that goes on sale in the United States. The grades range from D to A+ based on a fuel economy grading system whose details aren’t available and are probably yet to be finalized.
The National Automobile Dealers Association and Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers both came out against that option, saying that the letter grades would confuse consumers and be unfair. “The proposed letter grade falls short because it is imbued with school-yard memories of passing and failing,” said Dave McCurdy, the president and CEO of the Auto Alliance.
The EPA is determined to move forward with some form of new labeling scheme and is currently reviewing feedback for the three proposed designs during a 60-day public comment period. “New fuel economy labels will keep pace with the new generation of fuel efficient cars and trucks rolling off the line, and provide simple, straightforward updates to inform consumers about their choices in a rapidly changing market,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in a press release.
But whether a letter grading system is the best way to do that is a question that has yet to be answered. Of the NADA’s two chief criticisms, the possibility that consumers could be confused by letter grades or an overabundance of information on the stickers is the most valid. For example, if a shopper is in the market for an SUV and finds that all of the vehicles he is considering have the same vaguely-defined rating, would he be inclined to ignore fuel economy entirely in his decision process—even when an extra 2 mpg could pay significant dividends in terms of fuel costs and emissions?
The EPA does have an interest in alerting consumers to which vehicles pass, fail and lead the class in fuel economy, but in order for a letter-grading system to be successful it would have to be designed to be straight-forward and understandable to consumers that aren’t used to relying on fuel economy as one of their chief considerations in purchasing a new car or truck. If the EPA fails to accomplish this, letter grades—or even the stickers themselves—risk following in the path of the DHS’s all-but-forgotten color-coded terrorism alert system.
The EPA is encouraging anyone interested in weighing in on the new labels to do so on its website.