EPA grades new cars with smart stickers: an A for effort?

The Environmental Protection Agency offers new fuel-economy labels for vehicle showrooms.
Written by Melissa Mahony, Contributor

The fuel-economy labels stuck to windshields in car lots have been relatively static for the last three decades. But Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled two new potential stickers for rating an automobile's environmental and economic performance.

The effort, they say, is to help consumers decipher the differences between the numerous car-powering options emerging in today's market. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 also asks the EPA and Department of Transportation to evaluate cars on the greenhouse gases and smog-inducing pollution coming from their tailpipes, in addition to their fuel efficiency.

The label options also estimate how much money the car owners will save over 5 years, compared to the gas budget of drivers of gasoline-powered cars of the same model year. Those model year will begin in 2012.

And the label designs feature interactive codes for smart phones. The scannable stickers will send additional, and possibly customizable, information about the vehicle to the consumers' fingertips.

The following are some differences between the labels.

  1. A letter grade. ( A+,...B,... C-, etc.) Cars with the equivalent of 117 miles-per-gallon or better would receive an A+. According to the government, the best grade for a van so far is a C+. Luckily for some, car performance is graded on a curve, and there will be no "F" stickers.
  2. MPG-focused. The sticker shows where the car falls on the on a darkening spectrum of best-to-worst concerning mileage and pollution.

EPA Administrator Lisa  Jackson in a statement:

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. We want to help buyers find vehicles that meet their needs, keep the air clean and save them money at the pump.

But emissions equations are not so straightforward. With more energy options on the road come varying energy origins. For instance, electric vehicles may don "zero emissions" labels, but their batteries may (and most likely) charge via coal-powered electricity to some extent.

Jim Motavalli reports for the New York Times:

He [Dan Becker of the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy group] said that the sticker for electric cars should also take note of what are called upstream emissions, which are pollutants emitted by power plants when they produce the electricity that charges the cars. Such a system would probably require dividing the United States into separate regions because some parts of the country have higher concentrations of coal-burning plants and thus a greater upstream burden.

Not surprisingly, the idea of letter grades isn't making all automakers happy. But if there is anyone who can ever so delicately work the "C means average" excuse into their sales pitch, it's a car salesman.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the new labeling system.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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