New EPA Car Labels Should Stick to Facts

October 1, 2010

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) recently announced that they are considering an upgrade of the energy and environmental information on new-car labels.  Potential buyers, unfortunately, won't find the whole story on the new labels, even though the timing is right with new electric cars set to hit markets this fall, says Amy Kaleit, a senior fellow in Environmental Studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

  • One EPA-DOT option is to update the current label design to include comparisons of fuel economy and tailpipe emissions of CO2 and smog-related compounds.
  • The new labels would add information on energy efficiency and tailpipe emissions, but comparing emissions and fuel economy between a plug-in electric and a conventional automobile is difficult.
  • An electric car may have low emissions at the vehicle level, but it still must be charged and therefore contributes to emissions at the power-plant level; that is not true of conventional automobiles, which do not need to be charged but have higher emissions at the vehicle level.

Another option is the letter grade approach, in which each vehicle is given an overall efficiency and emissions grade ranging from D- to A+.

  • The letter grades would be assigned based on a bell curve of today's vehicle fleet, centered around a B-.
  • As fuel economy increases with technological improvements, either the average grade goes up, compressing the scale and rendering it less useful, or the rating must be regularly readjusted, making the rating itself too fluid to be of much value.
  • Assigning a letter grade, furthermore, comes across as a value judgment, and in this way the agencies offer preachiness instead of useful, inclusive information.

With plug-in cars now on the scene, the EPA and DOT should be commended for their efforts but good motives do not always translate to practical results, says Kaleit.

Source: Amy Kaleit, "New EPA Car Labels Should Stick to Facts," Pacific Research Institute, September 21, 2010.

 

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