Will consumers stay away from cars that get a “D” on the environment?
After many months of deliberation, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have released proposed ideas for new fuel economy labels that consumers see on windows of new vehicles. The designs recognize that advanced technology vehicles, from plug-in hybrids to electric cars, require a modified approach to communicating the benefits of various fuel-efficient technologies.
The boldest scheme uses a prominent report-card-style letter grade, ranging from A+ to D, to communicate overall fuel economy as well as greenhouse gas emissions. A second tier of information assigns a dollar value to the anticipated fuel savings over five years of a vehicle compared to the average vehicle on the road. A third tier provides an entire set of efficiency numbers of varying degrees of complexity depending on the type of technology in use.
Conventional gas-powered cars will carry familiar metrics such as city and highway MPG, but also add gallons per 100 miles, CO2 per mile, and anticipated annual fuel cost. For electric cars, plug-in hybrids, and natural gas-powered vehicles, the label will identify driving range, annual fuel cost, and a translated equivalent of MPG (referred to as MPGe). For plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevy Volt and the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, the label gets even more complex, featuring two rows: one for different modes of operation—such as when a plug-in hybrid is primarily using electricity and after it has depleted its batteries.
A second proposed label design retains the current label’s focus on miles per gallon and annual fuel costs. In this scheme, converting the efficiency of plug-in cars—which use electricity as fuel—into an MPG equivalent becomes paramount. In the sample design, the efficiency a plug-in hybrid (or “dual fuel vehicle”) is rated with an MPGe of 98 while using electricity during its first 30 miles of operation, and then 38 MPG when “electricity is used up.” Vehicle efficiency experts warn against “dumbing down” plug-in car efficiency to numbers that could be irrelevant or meaningless to consumers.
Both labels feature an innovative interactive tool for smart phones, which allows consumers to access additional information about efficiency and emissions. The federal agencies are also proposing that consumers visit a website to access information on upstream emissions associated with electricity generation and fuel refining—because the label only presents information about actual vehicle tailpipe emissions. Critics of plug-in cars question the environmental benefits of cars that run on electricity produced by burning coal.
DOT and EPA are providing a 60-day public comment period that begins with the proposal’s publication in the Federal Register. The agencies are encouraging public feedback on all aspects of the proposal.
See E.P.A. documents on the proposed designs: