Car Technology Must Keep Pace With Air Rules


The federal partnership with large U.S. auto makers to develop high-efficiency automobiles, being announced by the Clinton Administration today, aims in part to build cars giving off less air pollution.

If the project succeeds, these cars would be required to fit into a mosaic of state and federal clean air rules, including California’s, which are the most stringent in the world.

“Solving the emissions problem is more complicated than getting better gas mileage,” noted California Air Resources Board spokesman Bill Sessa, who had not seen details of the President’s plan.

Much public attention lately has focused on electric vehicles because of California’s mandate that the big auto makers sell zero-emission vehicles in the state beginning in 1998.


But only a tenth of new car fleets will eventually have to be electric or their equivalent. The rest will have to meet less-stringent standards under federal and state laws. A low-emission car that runs on gasoline could conceivably meet these other standards.

Under the current federal Clean Air Act, by 1995 all U.S. cars must be as clean-running as the 1993 models now sold in California.

California’s rules are much stiffer. From 1994 to 1998, automakers’ fleets must progressively become from 50% to 85% cleaner than today’s cars. And by 1998, 2% of each fleet must emit no pollution at all. The most likely technology so far to meet that standard is the electric car, though others, such as one run on hydrogen fuel cells, could develop over time.

The California rules stop tightening in 2003, when 10% of all automakers’ new models must be emission-free. The rest must be 85% cleaner than today’s cars.

California’s rules are highly influential nationally because it is not only the world’s largest market for cars but because several states, including New York and Massachusetts, may soon adopt the same standards.