Car Shopping? Just in from an EPA Hearing on New Fuel Economy Labels…

Shopping for new wheels.  It’s a pretty big deal.  With dealer showrooms filling up with groundbreaking new technology, it’s also a pretty exciting time to be looking for a new car.  Now the fuel economy window sticker has to catch up.

The fuel economy window sticker that you see on cars in the lot hasn’t changed much since the 70’s.  It was designed for a world where there was just the internal combustion engine – and one fuel – gasoline (or diesel).  That world is rapidly disappearing.  Already hybrids and flex fuel ethanol vehicles are wide-spread, and mass market electric vehicles are expected from virtually every automaker over the next few years.

What’s more, breaking our destructive dependence on oil, and combating climate change depend on moving even more quickly down this path.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation have worked with consumer marketing experts and scientists to redesign the fuel economy “sticker” for the 2012 model year for all cars, vans, SUVs and light-duty trucks on sale in the United States.  The new labels will for the first time provide consumers with comparisons of fuel economy and fuel costs, global warming pollution, and criteria pollutants (a.k.a. the stuff that produces smog.)  

In Chicago on Thursday, I testified on behalf of NWF at the first of two public hearings on the proposed labeling changes and made two essential points: First, NWF’s members both need and want fuel economy and global warming pollution information presented in a simple, straight forward way.  Like all consumers, we need information that helps us assess how much we’re going to spend or save at the gas pump, but we also value information that helps us choose a vehicle which meets our needs while wherever possible also reflecting our conservation ethic.  Second, we are depending on auto industry transformation not just to bring environmental benefits, but great cars and great jobs. We need information that clearly and accurately reflects the benefits new vehicles bring so that consumers can appropriately reward investment in innovation. 

Letter grade is a hot topic: Both the automotive industry and environmental groups were well represented at the hearing, reflecting different ideas about the design, content and, most contentiously, the kind of grading system presented to consumers on the new sticker.  An industry representative insisted that any form of grading should be among vehicles within their own class:  compare SUVs against SUVs, not against compact cars.  The problem with that approach is that it sets up confusing multiple sets of grades, where, for example, a more efficient SUV could score a better grade than a modestly efficient sedan (compared to other sedans) despite the SUV being less clean and less fuel efficient.

A speaker from the Korean manufacturer Hyundai pointed out that their national government initially tried a class-based grading system, but soon scrapped it based on poor reviews from consumers.

Environmental groups urged evaluating vehicles on an absolute scale, a view shared by, an Iraqi war veteran who had driven a truck in an Army fuel convoy throughout her tour of duty.  Speaking in favor of a label with a simple “A” through “D” letter grading system, she appealed to both industry and government to do more to reduce our dependence on foreign oil both on national security grounds, and to keep future soldiers out of harm’s way.  NWF believes that showing vehicle’s absolute performance is essential, but think it is possible to show relative performance as well.

 What do you want to see on the label?   Leave us a comment.

Even better, EPA is accepting comments from the public through the end of October here

Here is a detailed factsheet from EPA with all of the label proposals.  

Email me at for a copy of NWF’s full testimony.