Last summer, Andrew reported on some "excruciatingly clear" new fuel efficiency labels that the Department of Transportation and the EPA were jointly proposing to put on cars. One of the options called for a loud, bold letter grade: A through F. They would've looked something like this:
Today, the Department of Energy unveiled the new designs. They ditched the letter grade, and the excruciating clarity, for lots of technical details.
At FuelEconomy.gov, you can click around on an interactive version that explains what all the complicated figures mean, and there are different versions for 100-percent electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, "conventional" gas guzzlers, and also diesel, flex-fuel, and a bunch of other options on the market.
So does the fact that you need the DOE's website to help annotate this label mean that it's far too complicated for the typical consumer? With 99 percent of goods, I'd say yes. But—and maybe I'm giving too much credit to the American consumer here—I think automobiles are different, and that buyers typically research the heck out of a new vehicle before taking the plunge. For that reason, the web-based directory, and QR-codes scannable by smart phones, are all really useful.
Of course, a simple letter grade would have been simpler, and there's already some disappointment at the path not taken. Michael Livermore of the Institute of Policy Integrity, for one, isn't happy with the decision to scrap the grades.
At a time when the price of gasoline is causing pain at the pump, EPA’s decision to forego clear, letter-grade fuel efficiency labels is a missed opportunity.
At no additional cost, the simplified labels would convey information in a way that consumers can easily understand, helping them save money over the life of their vehicle. The makers of gas-guzzlers may not like having their products graded for fuel efficiency performance, but consumers benefit from the clearer presentation.
The E.P.A. has responded to some criticism, saying that the letter grades were going to be misinterpreted as grades for the overall quality of the vehicle. I can understand that concern, but is anyone actually purchasing a car on such an impulse that they wouldn't explore what the letter grade actually was? And isn't the whole point to be to make a clear statement and help guide consumers to more fuel-efficient vehicles?
So, yes, over all, I'm sad to see the letter grade go, but I still appreciate the level of detail that's included in the new labels. There's a lot of truly valuable information in there.