Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

Cleaner Cars: Easy To Make, Or A Pipe Dream?
Will California Auto Emissions Rule Affect the Entire Country?
By Peter Dizikes., November 6, 2002

America’s battle over auto emissions is currently being fought in California. But even if you don’t live on the West Coast, it may soon be coming to a state near you.

California’s hotly contested legislative measure AB 1493, which governor Gray Davis signed into law this past summer, will tighten carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles, holding cars and light trucks — including SUVs — registered in California to stricter air-pollution standards than vehicles sold elsewhere in the United States.

And backers of the legislation see the new emissions standards as becoming a benchmark that, due to a quirk in government laws, could be adopted across the nation.

“We are going to set an example for the country,” said Gov. Davis, after signing the bill into law in July, noting that carbon dioxide is one of the gases contributing to global warming.

Automakers spent millions in California this year in an unsuccessful campaign against the bill, including one print ad with the headline, “I’m scared to death and you should be too.” But since the regulations are not supposed to take effect until the 2009 model year, the industry still has years to wage a legal battle against the measure it sees as a national issue  and promises to win.

“We expect to challenge successfully the implementation of this law in federal court,” countered Josephine S. Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the industry coalition representing nearly every major car-maker in the country, after the bill-signing.

And experts say the auto industry has already started. Last month, the Justice Department sided with automakers DaimlerChrysler and General Motors against a separate state program that would require automakers to produce at least 10 percent of their automobiles sold in California from 2003 to 2008 to be zero-emissions vehicles.

Going After Global Warming, or Raising Fuel Standards?

Uniquely among the 50 states, California — home to more vehicles than anywhere else in the country — has the legislative power to mandate tougher environmental standards than those dictated by the federal government’s Clean Air Act. In turn, the other 49 states are allowed to exceed federal emissions guidelines if California’s guidelines do.

But not even California has the power to mandate higher fuel-economy standards  the so-called “CAFÉ standards”  than those determined by the federal government, the logic being that automakers should be able to sell cars with the same specifications from coast to coast. Senators in Washington briefly considered the gas-mileage issue earlier this year before dropping the matter.

Opponents of AB 1493, however, say it’s a way of bringing in higher fuel-economy demands through the legislative back door.

“This is an end-run around fuel-economy standards,” says Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance. “The only way to produce less carbon dioxide is to combust less fuel.”

For that reason, he says, the law will be on the Alliance’s side: “We’re confident this is a state incursion into federal law.” Shosteck, however, has dismissed the possibility of a statewide voting referendum on the measure in California this fall, something widely mentioned as a possible counterattack by the auto industry.

And both backers and opponents of the bill have one particular region in mind when they think of states that could fall in line behind California and tighten air-quality laws.

“The whole Northeast corridor is always a possibility,” says Art Garner, public relations manager for American Honda, which opposes the legislation.

Meanwhile, proponents of reduced emissions say the automakers will be wasting energy by going to the courtroom instead of heading back to the drawing board.

“It’s our view that the wise choice would be to get the lawyers out of the way, and let their engineers get around to solving the problems,” says Jon Coifman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that supported the legislation.

How Quickly Can Detroit Change Gears?

Indeed, a part of the debate which only figures to become more central as the emissions saga moves onward concerns how easy or difficult it is for automakers to implement technological improvements to their products.

The Alliance’s Shosteck calls the technical demands “incredibly onerous,” while Fay argues that “there really is no magic bullet that’s going to fix CO2 emissions.” But others disagree.

“Detroit’s got plenty of talent,” argues Coifman. “There are plenty of good engineers there.”

It’s still not clear, though, exactly what changes will have to be made to cars after 2009, as the bill only calls for the “maximum feasible reduction” of greenhouse gases. California’s Air Resources Board will recommend specific technological changes by 2005, giving car manufacturers four more years to comply.

Coifman says that still should not be a problem, since pace of production has picked up among carmakers, meaning they should be able to adapt to new rules quickly: “The trend in the industry now is to shorter and shorter model cycle times. This has been the big push  greater flexibility to build different models over universal platforms.”

But just how long does it take for a car to go from the drawing board to the road?

“Certainly, four or five years, if the technology is affordable and feasible, is reasonable,” acknowledges Garner.

The Technology May Already Be There

For their part, foes of AB 1493 also say it will limit the types of cars available to drivers, since the industry will not be able to offer as many lower-mileage SUVs and trucks, among the most popular vehicles they produce.

“What is going to change is the array of vehicles that is presented to the American public,” argues William Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance. “The auto industry is not shoving these cars down our throats. The American public wants SUVs.”

Coifman, however, argues that many technologies are available to improve the emissions and performance of the full range of vehicles being sold today, including minivans and SUVs: “You’ll still be able to pick up the soccer team, still be able to pick up a 4’ by 8’ sheet of plywood.”

But environmental groups say many technologies exist that could make all vehicles cleaner, including SUVs. These include adding extra gears to automatic transmissions; having engines shut down some cylinders at cruising speed; and more efficient air conditioning.

One possible refinement that could be used to help cars comply with AB 1493 is a refinement called “variable valve timing,” already in place on some Honda vehicles, which opens or closes piston valves depending on how hard the engine is working.

Feeling the Heat

Despite its reputation for making fuel-efficient autos, and its status as the only major car maker that is not part of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Honda has staked out a middle ground in the emissions debate, fearing the final regulations could still make life difficult for the company.

“We’re not necessarily against changes in fuel economy regulations, but we don’t think they should be done on a state-by-state basis,” says Garner. “What if the legislation says everybody has to improve by 10 percent? That’s not fair to us.”

Whatever the demands made on Detroit will be, this summer’s vote by the California legislature figures to be at the center of the storm for a long time.

“I think we needed help on air pollution, and they led the way there, but that doesn’t mean all their ideas are good,” says Fay.

Replies Coifman: “It’s simply not sound business practice to force on your customers a choice between the transportation you want and having to poison the planet. The public does not believe they have to make that choice.”

From this point on, the debate will only heat up.


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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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