New Labels Try to Nudge You to Better Fuel Economy Decisions

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The Environmental Protection Agency revealed new fuel-efficiency labels this week. What's remarkable about them is the care that went into their design. (Here's the full set of them in a PDF).

I think about all kinds of design as attempts to organize human behavior without mandating it, and the new labels are a great example of that idea.

They try to get consumers to think more clearly about the true costs of purchasing a car. What we've learned since the 1970s is that simply telling people, "Hey, that gas guzzler is going to be more expensive than a comparable model that's more fuel-efficient," doesn't work very well. People's brains just don't process the information very well.

"The old labels are just not good enough anymore," David Strickland, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator, told the New York Times.

The hope with these labels is that improving their design could improve human understanding of the information presented to us. Then, we'd make more rational decisions and some of the problems of oil dependence would be mildly ameliorated.

That light-touch vision squares nicely with Administration advisers' like Cass Sunstein's idea that you can "nudge" people to socially optimal outcomes by presenting decisions to them in the right ways.

That could be tough, though. Research from the University of California Davis Institute for Transportation Studies found that despite whining about gas prices, few people actually know how much money they spend on fuel for their cars, and most overestimate how much money they spend each year on it.

I like the new labels, but our problems with oil are deeper than a window sticker can solve.

Via Clive Thompson

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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