ImageThis week, federal agencies are expected to release a revamped window label for new cars and light trucks starting with model year 2012. With drivers looking for relief from high gasoline prices, it’s important that the improved label gets out as soon as possible, even if not perfect. The new label should enable consumers to more easily find a vehicle that meets their needs and causes less pain at the pump.

A very important improvement we expect is that new the label compares a vehicle’s efficiency and pollution to all cars and light trucks offered for that model year. According to surveys conducted by EPA prior to their proposal, over 60 percent of car buyers considered more than one vehicle type or class, which means a single scale for all vehicles would be extremely useful.

Consumers are hungry for vehicles that sip instead of guzzle fuel. Sales of hybrids and other fuel-efficient vehicles are hot. And surveys show that consumers want future innovations in efficiency with strong support for fuel economy standards that reach 60 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025.  

Our preferred approach for labeling vehicle performance is with a bold letter grade on the window sticker, a format that was originally proposed by the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A letter grade system that puts all vehicles on the same rating scale would make it simple to find the cleanest, most efficient vehicle that meets one’s driving needs.

Recent articles previewing the release of the final label claim that the agencies left out the letter grades. Assuming the agencies instead go ahead with the second of the two proposed designs (Label 2), some useful information will have been added. Here are some highlights of Label 2:  

  • Comparison across all vehicles in terms mpg and pollution: A vehicle shopper can see how one car compares with the range of vehicles available in that model year. Label 2 also compares mpg and pollution within the vehicle’s class (small car, midsize car, large car, minivan, pickup, station wagon, SUV, and van).
  • Emphasis on cost: Especially when gas prices are high, the cost of operating a vehicle provides an important and useful metric. Label 1 (the letter grade version) provided an even more useful five-year cost estimate which was compared to that of the average vehicle so the consumer immediately knew if the vehicle they were looking at would save them money or cause them to spend more to operate compared the average vehicle available. A five year perspective can also help consumers see how accumulated fuel savings can more than offset potential higher up-front purchase costs of a more efficient vehicle.  
  • Addition of important environmental impacts, including carbon dioxide and smog pollution: Including environmental impacts is a requirement of the legislation that calls for a revision of the label. Consumers looking for clean vehicles need to know how one vehicle compares to the rest in the model year and emissions performance allows a simple comparison regardless of fuel type (gasoline, diesel, electric, ethanol, compressed natural gas, hydrogen, etc.). The letter grade was a very prominent indicator of environmental performance. Label 2 has only a more modest display of emissions but includes the important comparison to all vehicles. 

Missing from both the proposed Label 1 and Label 2 was an accurate description of emissions from plug-in electric vehicles. When operating on electricity from a battery, plug-in electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions, but charging the vehicle batteries contributes to emissions at the electricity generation plants. This fact is common sense to most consumers and information about emissions from plug-in electric vehicle charging should be clearly denoted on the label. We’ll see if the agencies have made the important modification to include charging emissions.

Faced with high and volatile gas prices and on-going auto-related carbon and smog pollution, consumers need more options of clean, efficient vehicles. Starting next year, as new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards start to ramp up from 2012 to 2016 the improved labels can help consumers identify the best performers in the showroom. Going forward, improved fuel economy and carbon pollution standards to reach 60 mpg by 2025 can ensure cleaner, fuel-sipping vehicles continue to reach the showroom. The Obama Administration should grab the opportunity to provide consumers the biggest relief from pain at the pump by setting a 60-miles-per-gallon standard.