New EPA Car Window Stickers on Offer

Damien Newton over at Streetsblog LA reminded me of the EPA’s proposed new auto emissions stickers that are pasted on every new vehicle sold in the United States. These utilitarian labels long provided only the basic information familiar to any car shopper: mileage in the city and on the highway. Announced in August, it seems that the agency is accepting public comment and taking their show on the road. From the Streetsblog LA post:

This Thursday, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is coming to town to hold a public hearing on the design of new fuel economy stickers that will be placed on “for sale” cars. The agency, in partnership with the USDOT, will select either the sticker type pictured above, or a more simple “letter grade” sticker that would have an “A, B, C, or D” letter grade and a brief explanation of the grade. The new sticker will be the first change in environmental information given to consumers in three decades. The hope is that by informing car buyers of the environmental consequences of their vehicle choice that they’ll make better choices.

The car or light truck is the second most important purchasing choice we make (after housing). We should be paying more attention to the effect our purchasing choices have on our wallets and the environment at large.

I’m a big believer of the power of the vote – the vote that comes with your dollar, that is. In America, sometimes it seems, where Americans spend their dollars is as important as the choices that they make at the ballot box.

EPA label original formatNow I’m  a big believer in having the information that you need to make an informed choice. Evidently the new EPA is too. For too long, car window stickers (left) offered little in the way of substantive information. We knew as much about the impact that our fridge would have on the environment as we did our choice of automobiles.

Not only were these mileage ratings a black box of sorts in that we didn’t know how they were calculated, but we had little idea of how one choice compared to other choices. The relative ranking was quite insubstantial. For those who wanted o know more about the environmental effect of our choice over the lifetime of the product, well, you were out of luck.

For decades this modest label was the point-of-purchase information source for nearly 15 million auto buyers every year. Yet what it offered was so paltry! The city-highway classification was a simplistic binary scheme  that hardly reflected the real-world complexity of driving. Freeway congestion makes the stop-and-go seem like city driving. When in the city, the style of driving likely affected mileage more than any other factor. As the sticker says, “Your mileage may vary,” and boy did it vary from what was indicated.

To their credit, the EPA has changed the tests behind the mileage figure to reflect a more accurate picture of real-world driving. Now they have evolved the window sticker to be more informative at point-of-purchase. An informative sticker will help us make sense of the complimentary and sometimes competing claims of auto manufacturers, environmental organizations, and federal agencies. These two steps should make us consumers more conscious of the immediate and legacy effects of our vehicle choice.

I will take a closer look at the sticker designs as well as offer a third alternative that I feel improves upon the two alternatives by adding a key piece of information absent from the EPA designs: safety. Read on!

The New Stickers

EPA's label after review pending adoption What a difference a new sticker makes! Both proposed alternatives provide important information and act as a dashboard of sorts for metrics such as fuel efficiency and environmental emissions. These designs have basic elements in common with the old sticker (at top): the familiar city-highway binary is still there, and a relative ranking scale shows where a particular choice falls on the spectrum scale of other choices.

On the old window sticker, though, one had to parse both the city-highway range and the margin of the estimate for each. Not very intuitive! Gone now are those estimated ranges previously applied to both the city and highway estimates.  Other changes include:

A new ‘combined’ mileage figure (26 mpg in the example above) to make it easier to compare choices for fuel efficiency at-a-glance. The old scheme made it too easy for buyers to unrealistically rationalize their expected driving patterns to be closer to the  ‘highway’ end of the spectrum. With a single combined figure for comparison that kind of fuzzy math is obviated.

Relative ratings (bottom left in the sticker design, above) show the model as compared to the entire range of passenger vehicles. The smaller SUV that looked pretty good in the company of Escalades and Yukons now doesn’t look so good in the company of hybrids and electrics. Consumers need to know how the vehicle compares overall and the new sticker design delivers.

Relative ratings for environmental impact (bottom right in the example above). The new ‘environment’ box serves two important purposes: it indicates where our vehicle choice falls relative to other choices, and it quantifies the extent of that impact. Our environmental footprint becomes more real when you put a number to it. If you can measure or estimate it, why not communicate it?

Annual fuel cost as prominently displayed and it’s an eye-popping figure. When we pay at the pump we don’t really feel the cumulative effect of our vehicle choice. on our wallet. We should be reminded. And it packs an increasingly substantially larger wallop when we choose a larger vehicle.

My suggestion would be to add average insurance cost in the market where the dealer is located. That combined annual operating cost would begin to quantify just how much we spend operating a motor vehicle. Compare that to mass transit, car-sharing, or a bike and we’d be surprised at how motoring burns a hole in the pocketbook.

A New Kind of Sticker – With a Letter Grade?

EPA's proposed letter-grade labelThe EPA has offered  second design alternative too (at right). It is a more pronounced departure from the old sticker in that it is vertical, but more than that it applies a letter grade for efficiency and stresses the cost savings rather than the cost of fueling. That’s a positive reinforcement to underscore that our transportation choices have real-world consequences.

Much of the information is consistent with the more conservative alternative (the newer horizontal label), but there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences. One  real difference in the designs comes by way of style –  the letter grade. As Streetsblog LA says, industry and environmental representatives diverge on the value of providing the letter grade. And to be fair, the letter grade doesn’t give one much to go on. Graded according to what criteria? Without an explanation it’s difficult to know what the grade really means. (Those inclined to peer under the hood of the letter grade probably already drive an ‘A’ car anyway.)

I happen to like the letter grade because it tells me at a glance how this vehicle rates across likely benchmarks that I care about. And it is both intuitive and use-friendly; even a child could understand it, and indeed grade-schoolers are only too familiar with the A-D scheme. (My only complaint is that there is not an ‘F’ included – perhaps a bridge too far for the carmakers.)

Seeing the ‘environment’ box on the window sticker at least reminds us that health impacts follow from our purchasing decisions. That price is disproportionately high for those who reside in high-traffic areas where cancer and asthma and ailments associated with vehicle emissions predominate.

(Maybe we need to consider a window sticker for houses and apartments too? They could have a letter grade and an associated  health cost indicated just like the cars.)

My Proposed Design Alternative

My proposal for an EPA label
My proposal for an EPA label that evolves somewhat the EPA's proposed vertical label. Let me know what you think.

Last let me close with my own design proposal (right) that takes off from the more ambitious sticker design but includes safety information too to help consumers make a fully informed decision. I’ll be interested to know what you think.

In one respect, my design is a modest departure: I’ve grouped the mileage and costs data into one band and placed the environmental data into another. The EPA sticker somewhat mixed-and-matched these benchmarks, and I felt a more intuitive grouping was better. I’ve also done some housekeeping to subordinate the QR smartphone code and agency logos. They don’t need to predominate so I’ve tucked them in. Minor changes.

My more substantive addition is replacing the yellow band URL with a third tier of letter grades for two important safety considerations not currently on the EPA sticker: crashworthiness and crash compatibility. These are key factors that the insurance industry takes into account when writing auto policies. Yet these evaluations are nowhere to be seen at point-of-purchase in the car dealer.

  • Crashworthiness evaluates the ability of a vehicle to withstand a crash (familiar as the NHTSA crash safety ratings); and
  • Crash compatibility: evaluates weight and design in the propensity of a vehicle to cause damage.

Communicating safety ratings on the label will remind us that our choice also has legacy effects where the safety of ourselves, our passengers, other motorists, and pedestrians is concerned. Since safety is a leading selling point for automakers, and is increasingly a prime consideration for car shoppers, why not include this information?

Here are the two labels compared:


Where Two-Wheeled Rubber Meets the Road

I’ll close with some ground-level observations about cars and car safety from the two-wheeled perspective.

We know that weight is an important factor in estimating damage to other vehicles. But the design, too, affects how occupants in the struck vehicle fare. Large SUVs ride high, for example, and in collisions with an average passenger car the SUV rides up over the window sill to cause grave damage to occupants. The federal government has known the dangers for decades but only recently acted to demand changes.

As a compact-car driver and, more often these days, a cyclist, I am aware that the single most important variable that affects my safety is vehicle design. SUVs are by far the most intimidating and dangerous vehicles on the road, in my experience, because they offer drivers poor visibility. That means that cyclists have to anticipate being unseen and sideswiped as drivers make a blind right turn. It is not uncommon among any drive, but seems to happen more frequently when it is a large SUV making the turn.

SUVs also use too much road real estate. The space for vehicles and cyclists on any road is limited. For narrow roads, that means that cyclists expect to be wedged between a vehicle and the parked cars. It’s much more hazardous when a large vehicle is involved. We talk about road diets (important) but what we really need is a vehicle diet.

In the American system, design innovations for safety and efficiency seem more likely to flow from purchasing decisions rather than mandates or standards. Let’s hope that informative window stickers are a step in that direction. As the EPA puts more information and evaluative tools in our hands as consumers, the responsibility is ours too. We need be more cognizant of how our everyday purchasing decisions affect everyone and have long-term legacy consequences. Choose wisely! Or better yet, choose not to drive!