Shopping for your new green car doesn’t need to make you blue if you break down the process into three simple steps.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), through its Office of Transportation and Air Quality, has made finding a green car easier. Since 2000, the EPA has rated every new model for its greenhouse gas and smog emissions, and fuel efficiency, allowing shoppers to compare cars for their environmental impact per mile driven. It then certifies the vehicles that it deems to be “green” as SmartWay vehicles (see epa.gov/greenvehicles/), with the very top performers earning the SmartWay Elite designation. This program is much like the EPA’s Energy Star program for household appliances. The ratings criteria are assessed annually to ensure that they keep up with the evolving technologies.
The SmartWay program evaluates vehicles against three parameters:
The SmartWay program has its deficiencies, such as setting an arbitrary target of certifying 20% of vehicles each model year as SmartWay, and a historical bias toward vehicles that can use high-ethanol gasoline blends. While the auto industry is still in the driver’s seat, determining what models hit the roads, and the program evaluates what the industry produces, the SmartWay certification program is still a helpful way for shoppers to navigate through the “green” car universe.
Since fuel efficiency is a critical component of the scoring, the SmartWay definition of green works for those shoppers primarily looking to use less fuel. SmartWay-certified cars have good fuel economy—the primary driver for choosing a green car. According to the J.D. Power and Associates Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) study, 47% of new vehicle owners said that gas mileage was one of the most important factors in choosing their vehicle, up from 40% in 2011. With the fuel prices projected to stay above $3.20 per gallon for gasoline and $3.76 per gallon for diesel through the end of 2014, according to the May 2013 U.S. Energy Administration Short-Term Energy Outlook, saving fuel will likely remain a top consideration for car shoppers, and thereby continue to incentivize manufacturers to roll out new fuel-efficient options.
Maybe the best part of the SmartWay certification program is that it allows for an apples-to-apples comparison across different propulsion technologies and vehicle classes and provides a broad-based definition of green. SmartWay-certified vehicles include electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), hybrids (HEVs), compressed natural gas vehicles (CNGs), and hydrogen vehicles (H2), as well as traditional gasoline and diesel vehicles. This is important since a gasoline or diesel vehicle may be the best fit for your particular situation. Limiting the green discussion to just alternative fuel technologies would ignore both the significant advancements that have taken place with respect to the traditional fuel vehicles, and the fact that alternative fuel vehicles may not be a practical choice for a large segment of the U.S. population.
There are ways to use the SmartWay certification program as your green guide. Five SmartWay vehicle categories present the options that are realistic choices for most people: gasoline, diesel, electric, plug-in hybrid, and traditional hybrid. Choosing the category or categories that may work best for you is about looking at your lifestyle and determining what is important to you and your family.
While most of the discussion around green cars is about EVs, PHEVs, and HEVs, the bottom line is that it is really a personal decision that involves matching a technology to your lifestyle. When analyzing your options, consider the:
Curt Lindeman is the cofounder of eGreenCars.com, which provides car shoppers with resources to learn about and find their new fuel-efficient, green car.