The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined forces with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in announcing a new idea calling for an energy-based, rating system for all new cars and light trucks.

In their joint press releases, the agencies acknowledged that for 30 years the EPA required millage estimates for both highway and city driving to be posted on the sale stickers for all new cars. But now they are considering two new options. One is a letter grade system, which according to the EPA would, “provide consumers with simple, straightforward energy and environmental comparisons across all vehicle types.” In addition to the letter-grade sticker, the EPA and NHTSA are also proposing a second sticker that displays a vehicle’s estimated fuel cost and comparisons to other vehicles. 

While the agencies are now in the public comment period for this proposal, the idea raises a few questions.

Question 1: Does the government think we're stupid?

Perhaps stupid is too strong a word, but still — simple deductive skills would allow a consumer to figure out what car is best for the environment. If a car gets 22 miles per gallon and another gets 35, it seems clear which is best for the environment. Now, obviously things are going to get more complicated as fuel efficacy technology gets more complicated, but a car is generally the second largest purchase an individual makes other than a home, so shouldn’t some real individual research be put into this? An “A through D” rating system seems a bit simple for such an important investment. I mean, the bond industry is extremely complicated and it’s not like we use a letter-grade system for that — oh wait, never mind.

Question 2: Are we stupid?

Perhaps stupid is too weak a word — lazy may be better. Say what you want about what caused the home mortgage crisis, if there’s one thing to take away from it, it’s that Americans aren’t into reading the fine print. I’m not saying some sort of risk grade should be awarded to mortgage lenders (actually that may be a good idea), but if this stuff is super complicated, and Americans simply aren’t investing time into researching what they purchase, perhaps a simple grade system should be available to a simple public. I’m talking about cars here … but also houses.

Question 3: Should we trust the government ratings?

I don’t want to go all Ron Paul on this issue, but how much should we trust the government when it comes to rating anything in the private sector? First of all, the government still has huge investments in General Motors. While we all hope the nation’s ownership of GM ends by the time a rating system is put in place, this underscores some serious concerns about conflict of interest. It is in the United State’s interest to have American cars sold. It’s good for jobs, it’s good for narrowing our trade deficit. It’s just good. So why trust the government to implement a simple A-D rating system? The mileage averages that are placed on a new car’s window stickers are pretty straightforward; if a car averages 35 miles on the highway a big “35” is printed on the sticker. But when we get into a simple ratings system implemented by the U.S. government to compare vehicles made in Japan, Korea, Germany and the United States, it seems a like the definition of conflict of interest. Remember, what's in the national interest isn’t always in the best interest of the planet.

Question 4: What does this tell us about the future of green cars?

The sheer fact that the EPA is considering expanding on the basic miles-per-gallon postings on new vehicles tells us that the green vehicle game is getting serious. We live in a world where electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, gasoline and diesel cars and trucks are all traveling on the same roads. The fact that we are no longer comparing apples to apples is a good thing. This is America after all — we are a country that wants choices. Now we have them. 

The real question is can we make the right choice?

Related on MNN:

4 questions to ask about the proposed eco-grades for cars
Your next car purchase may be based on a letter grade issued by Beltway bureaucrats.