Driving Clean

Fighting the Auto Industry for Low-Emission Cars

Which environmentalists do the auto companies fear most? Is it Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean air regulators? Congressional fuel economy watchdogs? Neither one, actually. The principal worry is a little state agency in California, the Air Resources Board (ARB), which sets emissions policy for the state. Since California is the largest auto market in the country, accounting for 10 percent of all sales, the automakers can’t afford to ignore its dictates.

What’s more, California is not alone. Several other states, all in the Northeast and representing another big chunk of the national auto market, follow its lead on emissions. These states are New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, with others likely to be added soon as legislatures discover the benefits of clean emissions laws.

ARB’s stringent clean air rules have effectively forced the auto industry to produce new generations of low-emission vehicles, including gas-electric hybrids and so-called Partial Zero-Emission Vehicles (PZEVs), which are environmentally responsible versions of regular gasoline cars like the Honda Accord, Ford Focus, Toyota Camry and Dodge Stratus. "Some PZEVs actually produce lower levels of emissions than the hybrids," says Violette Roberts, community relations manager of the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District.

Anyone can buy the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius hybrid cars, but whether or not you can actually buy a PZEV depends on your state’s approach to emissions. Some of them don’t work as well outside of California because they’re dependent on the state’s mandated low-sulfur fuel.

The Nissan Altima is available as a Partial-Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV), which is more than 90 percent cleaner than a standard 2003 car.

Not surprisingly, the auto industry hates regulation of any kind, and it particularly hates ARB. One approach the companies have taken is litigation. General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Isuzu sued ARB in 2001 (backed by the Bush administration) primarily because they didn’t want to build thousands of battery-powered "zero-emission" cars in the 2003 model year. The companies had a point, because battery cars, with limited range, have been a failure in the marketplace. GM leased only 600 of its high-tech EV-1 model in California and Arizona.

The automakers dropped their lawsuits last August after ARB modified its regulations to allow the companies credit for producing PZEVs. As some industry observers note, PZEVs—whose tailpipes are more than 90 percent cleaner than the average 2003 production car, and produce zero evaporative emissions (the vapors that escape from fuel lines even when vehicles are parked)—are actually as environmentally friendly as battery cars, when production of the electricity needed to keep the batteries charged is taken into account.

The auto industry has conducted a public relations blitz in California that some credit with persuading ARB to back down. Eron Shosteck, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, is typically bombastic when he says, "Californians may lose the choice to buy the vehicles they need for their families and work
ARB wants everyone driving around in golf carts."

The implication is that uniformed state officials (with or without black helicopters) will be coming for the keys to the family SUV. In reality, ARB’s laws have forced automakers to produce cleaner SUVs, like the upcoming 35- to 40-mile-per-gallon (mpg) hybrid version of the Ford Escape. Several of the prototype fuel-cell vehicles, which produce electricity from hydrogen, are also based on SUVs.

Connecticut is one of the states where the question of signing on to the California emissions rules is being hotly debated. Charles Rothenberger, a legal fellow at the Connecticut Fund for the Environment (CFE), says the California standards "would make a profound difference for Connecticut’s air quality." A bill to bind the state to California’s emission rules by 2007 will be introduced in the state legislature in February, and Rothenberger says "there’s a lot of interest in the governor’s office and on the legislative side." A similar bill failed last year.

Why does Connecticut need low-emission vehicles? Connecticut’s Clean Cars Alliance, of which CFE is a member, points out that the state’s air is among the most polluted in the country, caused primarily by cars and trucks on I-95 and the historic but dated Merritt Parkway. Near-continual gridlock aggravates the situation, because vehicles sit idling. "Toxic air pollution creates a cancer risk for Connecticut citizens that is 850 times greater than the acceptable risk set by the EPA," says the alliance.

Between 1990 and 2020, vehicle miles traveled are projected to grow by 45 percent in Connecticut, according to the State Department of Transportation. EPA figures show Connecticut produces 45 percent of its greenhouse gases from transportation, compared to just 25 percent nationally.

Even if PZEVs become available in Connecticut, they’re likely to remain below the radar screen for some time. "It’s a challenge for carmakers to educate consumers about this technology," says Bill Shapiro, Volvo’s manager of environmental affairs.

But the new clean cars will likely catch on, because unlike range-limited battery cars, they present few drawbacks for consumers. The Ford Focus PZEV, available as an option nationally in 2004, costs just $115 more than standard models and offers a performance boost.

Fans of futuristic technology should love PZEVs. BMW, Mitsubishi and Volvo PZEV cars offer a novel radiator coating, the Engelhard corporation’s PremAir, which "eats" ground-level ozone, a smog precursor. "Our chemical catalyst converts ozone to oxygen," says Engelhard’s commercial manager, Bulent Yavuz. Ted Lowen, Engelhard director of corporate affairs, claims that a jogger running behind a PZEV car equipped with PremAir would be breathing cleaner air than if he or she were in front of it.