It is notoriously difficult for everyday Americans to shop for cars made in the USA. However, we have some US legislation on our side that helps us identify the country of origin for cars on the lot – the American Automobile Labeling Act.
In this research, I will break down what the American Automobile Labeling Act is, how you can use it to find cars made in the USA, and how effective this legislation is for creating transparency between auto manufacturers and American consumers.
What Is The American Automobile Labeling Act?
The American Automobile Labeling Act (AALA) is a law that was enacted in 1992 that requires all new automobiles manufactured for sale in the United States to have labels that provide tons of information about the vehicle, like fuel economy, emissions, and other specifications.
The law mandates that the label be placed on the car window with all this information – make, model, year, fuel economy rating, greenhouse gas emissions, country of origin, and much more.
The AALA also requires manufacturers to submit annual reports to the Department of Energy (DOE) that provide first-party data on the fuel economy and emissions for all their vehicles. The DOE compiles all that data and makes it available to the public every year.
Outside of these mandates to push manufacturers to be more environmentally friendly, the AALA also contains provisions to help consumers identify where the car was manufactured.
Provision For Country of Origin Labeling (49 U.S. Code § 32304)
According to this provision in the AALA titled “Passenger motor vehicle country of origin labeling,” automobile manufacturers must disclose the percentage of US and Canadian parts in each car they produce. This information is displayed on the window sticker or Monroney label of cars on the lot for sale in the US.
More specifically, this provision requires manufacturers to disclose the following information:
- The percentage of US and Canadian parts content by value (of the total price)
- Country of origin for the engine
- Country of origin for the transmission
- The final assembly location (city, state, and country)
Right off the bat, we see that the law only requires US auto manufacturers to disclose the combined percentage of US and Canadian parts, not US parts only. This is pretty unfortunate – a car could be 100% Canadian-sourced (unlikely, but just for the sake of the example), and the common consumer wouldn’t know it by looking at these numbers.
We also can’t see a more detailed breakdown of parts by country of origin, but this information gives us a good start.
Where To Find Country of Origin Information
As I mentioned above, this required information should be stated on the window sticker or Monroney label on the physical car. However, you’ll need to do a little more digging if you’re shopping online.
The percentage of US/Canadian parts and country of origin information for the engine, transmission, and final assembly can be found online using the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). There are lots of free VIN lookup tools on the Internet, and the VIN should be readily displayed on the vehicle details page of any marketplace like cars.com or others.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the official VIN Decoder, though, that allows consumers to search for a car’s make, model, and year, as well as a ton of other information in their database. To access the VIN Lookup Tool, visit the NHTSA website (linked above) and enter the 17-digit VIN for the car you are interested in. The tool will then provide you with information about the vehicle.
Important caveat – the NHTSA database only includes information for cars that were manufactured after the American Automobile Labeling Act was enacted in 1992. If the car you are interested in was manufactured before 1992, this information may not be available.
Here’s an example search I performed for a truck I found on cars.com.
Click on the “Show All Vehicle Details” button, and it will give you a detailed breakdown of everything that should be on the window sticker.
It should show me all the country of origin information required that I outlined above, but I didn’t get that, unfortunately.
As you can see from the screenshot, all I received was the location of the final assembly plant (which was also perplexing since it said the state was Missouri, but the final assembly plant country was Canada?).
I did not receive any information about the country of origin for the engine or transmission or the percentage of parts from the US and Canada by total value.
Bulk Reports From Auto Manufacturers
While the VIN Decoder doesn’t seem to work as effectively as it should, we have one other method for looking up this sourcing information online. The NHTSA publishes annual reports that provide a summary of all the AALA manufacturing location requirements by make and model.
You can find those annual reports here.
Inside those reports, you’ll find a detailed breakdown of the percentage of parts from the US and Canada, final assembly countries, where the engine and transmission are from, and a few more details.
We are working on a detailed analysis of these reports over time and will publish that data soon.
Is the American Automobile Labeling Act Effective?
In our opinion, the AALA is pretty effective for forcing car manufacturers hands to disclose information about the country of origin for every vehicle.
However, there are several improvements that we think the law could have to help American consumers.
First, separating the percentage of parts from US and Canadian suppliers can help car buyers be more informed about what parts are truly domestically sourced versus aggregating it alongside our northern neighbors.
Second, this required information is very difficult to find online. The information from the official VIN lookup tools is incomplete, leaving consumers in the dark when shopping online.
Finally, we would love to see even more detailed breakdowns about the country of origin for every major part used in these cars, not just the engine and transmission.
Overall, we’re glad to see laws like these in our country, but as always, we want to continually revisit them to make sure they can be as effective as possible.