Eco-labels for cars? Switzerland toys with idea

The low emission vehicles shown at the Geneva car show this week include the Subaru R1e electric vehicle.
The low emission vehicles shown at the Geneva car show this week include the Subaru R1e electric vehicle.Martial Trezzini / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Environmentally conscious consumers looking to buy a new car might be overwhelmed by the range of green machines on offer these days.

Hybrid or biofuel engines, reduced carbon emission, increased mileage, cleaner motors, more efficient filters: They're all hard enough for the experts to compare — let alone the average buyer.

Now, a new rating label promoted by Switzerland at the Geneva auto show this week ranks each car according to a simple scale from "A" (good) to "G" (bad) that sums up its environmental impact.

The scale mirrors a Europe-wide rating system already used for light bulbs and home appliances such as refrigerators, ovens and washing machines. For the moment, only a handful of European countries require car vendors to display these labels, but manufacturers expect the entire European Union to introduce the system soon.

"It's going to be adopted by all the EU countries in the next two years," predicted Jose Santamaria, head of consumer research at Mazda Europe.

There has been some trepidation by automakers who fear that the system could expose companies that have jumped on the environmental bandwagon without actually doing much to improve the efficiency of their vehicles. In Germany, lobbying by the country's powerful car industry has so far prevented a simplified comparison chart like the one found in Switzerland.

Not surprisingly, heavier sports cars, luxury sedans, and sport utility vehicles do poorly on the green scales, and most people won't need a rating system to know that a Hummer fares worse than hybrid. But the system is designed to put that gap in public view.

Watching your carbon
Even among near-identical models the difference can be striking. Saab's gasoline-powered 9-3 station wagon rates as a G, while the biodiesel version scored an A.

"People are asking for this," Saab's product manager Henrik Bjerkelund said. "It's a very easy way for consumers to see how much carbon dioxide is produced."

One visitor, Chris Speiser, who was at the show with his young son, said he preferred the system over a long list of environmental variables.

A straw poll at the show indicated that manufacturers agree, but that's not necessarily a good thing for some.

European car manufacturers prefer a system that compares only cars in the same category, Sigrid de Vries, spokeswoman for the industry body ACEA in Brussels, told The Associated Press.

"It would have to reflect different types of cars," she said.

When carmakers see a major change in consumer buying patterns, said Mazda's Santamaria, they will feel justified in making a bigger commitment to green technology.

"We are ready and able to invest huge amounts of money in the development of more efficient cars, but there is no demand for them," he said.

Consumers browsing vehicles at the Geneva show said that a simple grading system would have an immediate impact on vehicle choice.

Carlos de Luis and Pedro Fondeville, who had flown in from Barcelona, Spain, said cars could only get greener as consumers become more environmentally conscious.

Plans to raise the bar
That view was shared by Walo Luginbuehl of the Swiss energy ministry, which administers the labels here. He said the grading system will get tougher as green technologies improve.

"The plan is to only have about one in seven cars in the top category. We have to keep up with the pace of technology," he said.

That will create an incentive for those companies seeking a slice of the green market to make cars more efficient, Luginbuehl said.

But he said auto makers such as Porsche, Ferrari and Bentley can't drop any further even if the bar is raised. All of their cars are already in the lowest category.