Blog Post

Cali Unleashes Info Galore on Emissions, Incentives for Green Car Geeks

“Oil is finite, but information is infinite,” Google (s GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt said a year ago in a talk for the New America Foundation. Fortunately, we have online tools to organize and manage that information, sometimes in the interest of reducing oil consumption, as well as emissions and fuel expenses for drivers. The California Air Resources Board has just launched such a web-based tool, with its revamped DriveClean Buying Guide.

Announced Thursday afternoon, the web site allows users to compare vehicles based on Global Warming and Smog scores — snapshots of how a car’s fuel consumption, carbon-equivalent emissions and contribution to smog (through production of certain volatile organic compounds) compares to all other vehicles in that model year. By state law, these scores now appear on an Environmental Performance label displayed in the window of cars manufactured since January 2009 and brought to market in California. Now they’re also available online in a ranking system similar to the side-by-side comparison tools offered by the federal site and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Vehicle Guide, but with a couple key differences, including increased emphasis on vehicles’ contribution to climate change (relative to, at least), more integration of rebate an incentive info and a more slick interface.

California ARB Chairman Mary Nichols described her agency’s new site in a statement as signaling a major shift for consumers. “Until now, decisions about car buying were based solely on what functions the car needed to serve,” she said, as opposed to how “clean” a vehicle is and what rebates, tax breaks and other incentives are available for different models.

One could quibble with the idea that car buying decisions have ever been solely about function (it’s an elite group that can ignore the price tag, many consumers do factor in fuel efficiency, and it’s a rare driver who doesn’t give a hoot about the form of a car). But on my first perusal of the site, DriveClean does seem to provide a valuable service — one that will grow as more data becomes available. “Since this program is new,” DriveClean explains, some cars are still missing Global Warming scores, but that information will be added down the road.

In a nod to the point raised this week by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. — that driving habits affect the cost assessments for different vehicles — DriveClean provides an option to customize fuel consumption, emission and cost estimates according to your location and city vs. highway mileage. If you’ve ever shopped around for a greener vehicle, how did you research and compare your options?