It might not be as much fun as voting for your favorite performers on "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars," but the federal government wants your input on new fuel-economy labels for cars.
The sticker that consumers find on new-car windows is more than 30 years old and focuses on fuel consumption and annual fuel costs. But the miles-per-gallon information isn't an effective measure anymore because some electric models, for example, don't use any gallons of fuel at all.
So the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are looking at two label designs, both of which would provide additional information on fuel economy and emissions to help consumers compare makes and models, be they electric, plug-in hybrids, gas or diesel.
But one of the proposed redesigns has environmental groups applauding and the auto industry crying foul because only the most fuel-efficient models, regardless of vehicle category, can score well. The most controversial component of that design is a prominent letter grade ranging from A-plus to D that takes up nearly half the label and reflects the vehicle's fuel economy and tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions.
Electric vehicles that get 117 mpg or more would rate the A-plus under the proposal, while a car like Ferrari's 612 Scaglietti that gets 12 mpg would earn a D.
During a public hearing Thursday in Chicago, representatives of automakers and auto dealers agreed a new window label was necessary but said assigning a letter grade across vehicle categories would be akin to comparing apples and oranges. And the auto industry has said that a grading system is imbued with school-time memories of passing and failing. One other public hearing on the new labels is scheduled for Thursday in Los Angeles.
Letter grades "are at best of virtually no value and at worst counterproductive," said Desmond Roberts, a Chevrolet dealer in the Chicago area and an official with the National Assn. of Minority Automobile Dealers. "Seeking to evaluate and rate vehicles without attempting to hold constant attributes such as seating or hauling capacity renders such ratings meaningless."
Consumers also could confuse the letter grades with overall vehicle quality or safety, said Giedrius Ambrozaitis of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
But environmental advocates contend that letter grades would be a simple evaluation system that all consumers understand.
"Letter grades boil down global-warming pollution and fuel consumption into a single metric that everyone understands," said Luke Tonachel, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Peter Zalzal of the Environmental Defense Fund said letter grades were "instantly familiar and meaningful."
Both proposed labels contain information on fuel economy for city and highway driving and a slide bar comparing a vehicle's fuel economy with that of all other vehicles. They also include information on fuel consumption, with combined city and highway gallons per 100 miles.
Labels for electric vehicles will have a "miles per gallon equivalent" for comparison purposes.
A high-tech addition to both proposed labels is a QR Code, an interactive tool similar to a bar code that smart phones can use to access additional information online, giving consumers the ability to personalize estimates based on their own driving habits and current fuel costs.
The proposed labels do not include information on "upstream emissions," which are generated indirectly. Electric vehicles, for example, have no direct emissions. But they aren't considered completely emissions-free because they might use electricity that originated from coal-burning power plants. Emissions from those power plants would be considered upstream emissions.
In the case of gasoline vehicles, upstream might include emissions from fuel refineries. Including such information on a window label would be difficult and confusing to consumers, Ambrozaitis said.
The EPA is considering putting information on upstream emissions on the Web for consumers, a spokesman said.
Roberts said most car buyers concerned with fuel economy or emissions performance do extensive research before ever setting foot in a dealership, so a window sticker would provide nothing new to them.
"With the advent of the Internet, shoppers increasingly peruse comparative information and make preliminary purchase-criteria decisions in the comfort of their home or office, arriving at the dealership armed to the hilt with a wealth of knowledge regarding the vehicles," he said.
In recent years, the EPA updated window labels when it revamped its test methods for reporting gas mileage. The point was to more accurately report estimated highway and city mpg in real-world conditions. Those changes were reflected on window stickers for 2008 models made after Sept. 1, 2007.
New energy-efficiency labels were required by the federal Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The two final label designs are the results of focus groups with citizens and panels of experts, officials said.
The government wants to know what consumers think before it settles on final versions of the window labels that will go on all new cars starting with 2012 models. Comments can be submitted by Nov. 22 online at regulations.gov or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Prototypes can be viewed online at epa.gov/fueleconomy.
Bloomberg News was used in compiling this report.