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Electric Cars May Get “A+” in 2012 Efficiency Labels

The federal government today unveiled its proposal for the most significant overhaul of cars’ fuel economy labels in 30 years. The Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation have put together two options for window stickers in new vehicles starting with 2012 model year, including one label with a letter grade system ranging from A+ to D based on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy.

The system, which is still a work in progress and open to public comment, would give high marks to plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and could affect how car shoppers perceive the relative costs and benefits of different technologies and models for years to come. “American consumers are quickly accepting advanced technology vehicles,” said National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator David Strickland in a call with reporters today. “Old petroleum-centric labels just aren’t good enough anymore.”

According to the proposed rule making and federal officials who spoke with reporters today, electric vehicles would typically earn the A+ grade, while plug-in hybrids would generally fall into the A category and hybrids like the Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid and Honda Civic Hybrid would earn an A-. Upcoming models like the electric Nissan LEAF and extended-range electric Chevy Volt from General Motors (s GM) have yet to be certified by the EPA, said EPA Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy, so she could not give a sense of what grade they would get under the proposed rating system.

Applied to 2010 model year vehicles, high performance cars like the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti and Mercedes-Benz Maybach 57 would bring up the rear with D+ and D letter grades, based on more than 689 grams of CO2 emissions per mile and fuel efficiency equivalent to 13 MPG or less.

McCarthy explained that grades would be distributed across “a pretty standard bell curve,” with a B- as the median. Vehicles would be compared with all models in that year’s fleet, rather than having SUVs compete only against other SUVs, for example. There would be no failing grade, McCarthy said, because only cars that comply with the Clean Air Act can be sold.

The EPA and Transportation Department also unveiled an alternative label that would more closely resemble stickers displayed in new cars today, with an emphasis on miles per gallon. The proposed labeling systems are hardly set in stone, however. The government will be collecting public comments for a 60 day period before finalizing the labels by early 2011, McCarthy told reporters on Monday. Both labels have the same information — it’s just displayed differently, said McCarthy, who emphasized, “We’re not looking at the letter grade as a judgment,” but rather a metric that people will understand quickly.

Other elements of the proposed label design includes a “slider bar” showing how a model’s greenhouse gas emissions compares to all other vehicles in that model year, a dollar amount of how much a consumer could expect to save in fuel costs over five years compared to the average for that vehicle class for that year, and a rating for gallons or kilowatt-hours per 100 miles. Current labels show miles per gallon for city and highway driving, as well as annual cost, based on 15,000 miles of driving per year and an average gasoline price.

The agencies have also proposed to include what’s called a QR Code, which would allow consumers to use access data about the vehicle via smartphones, comparing different vehicles and personalized estimates on a government website. “We’re going to be relying heavily on the web page to be interactive,” McCarthy said, for plug-in vehicles in particular, which will have different operating costs based on electricity rates in different regions.

The idea of making this information readily available on the web rather than part of the label is to “make prices much more accurate than anyone could by trying to aggregate [electricity costs] into some kind of national number.”

Seeking to explain the comparatively narrow focus on tailpipe emissions and vehicle efficiency, as opposed to broader figures reflecting the total environmental impact and costs of a vehicle, McCarthy said the agencies “couldn’t properly do justice,” to issues involved in greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation, adding that the stickers are already “kind of crowded,” and “don’t generally look at emissions from gasoline refineries, either.” The goal, she said, is to “make sure consumers have the information they need to judge the vehicle itself.”

If you’d like to weigh in on the labels, you can get a tour of the proposed designs here, download the full 242-page proposed rulemaking here, and email comments to newlabels AT or submit them via this form on the EPA’s fuel economy website.

For more research on electric cars check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Report: IT Opportunities in Electric Vehicle Management

Why Microsoft’s Electric Vehicle Deal With Ford Matters

One Response to “Electric Cars May Get “A+” in 2012 Efficiency Labels”

  1. Wait. You mean to tell me that my wife sat on her computer at work, refreshing her second monitor for two hours until we secured our Nissan LEAF order today and we’re not guaranteed an A+ for a zero emission car? Huh? The LEAF is going to be the most significant new car of the century and this rep from the EPA “could not give a sense of what grade they would get under the proposed rating system.” WTH? How could it not be more efficient than a Toyota Hybrid that uses gasoline? I live in the Pacific NW where only 25% or so of our electricity is from burning coal so how could it possibly not be more efficient?