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J.D. Power unveils Automotive Environmental Index. Is green driving going mainstream?

jdpowers.gifJ.D. Power recently announced its inaugural Automotive Environmental Index, a rating of vehicles’ environmental friendliness based on fuel economy data, customer feedback, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution levels. Although the results of the survey aren’t too surprising, the survey itself could represent an important step forward in the growing consumer demand for environmentally sound transportation.

Recall that there was a time when safety features were simply not part of the car buying equation. In fact, when seat belts were first introduced, they were greeted with derision — from customers. And for decades, auto manufacturers resisted legislative attempts to enforce safety standards. Consumers simply weren’t willing to pay for these features, the argument went.

Of course, we know how that story ended. Today we have crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, side impact air bags, and the list goes on. Manufacturers compete ferociously over their safety ratings because they know that car buyers are paying attention.

Until recently, consumers weren’t willing to pay for fuel economy. Fuel prices had surprisingly (and depressingly) little impact on buyer behavior. But that is starting to change as well, and perhaps the J.D. Power index is a bellwether of consumer sentiment.

Certainly the report contains some interesting consumer statistics, simultaneously revealing heightened interest in fuel efficiency, and also some wildly unrealistic expectations for present technology. For example, 57% of people who will soon be in the market for a new car are considering buying a hybrid. That’s cool. And on average, consumers expect to pay $5,250 more for a hybrid, so they’re not naive about the costs involved.

But they also expect that, on average, hybrids will offer fuel economy gains of 28 miles per gallon, which is far out of whack with the 9 mpg gains that they’ll actually see. And the 49% of consumers who are considering buying flex-fuel vehicles may be disappointed to find out they have no place to fill the tank with ethanol.

Still, though, the survey data is good news. Consumer demand is the horse the pulls the cart, and with J.D. Power throwing its considerable weight behind an easy-to-understand environmental rating system, manufacturers will be sure to take notice.

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