California leads the way to cleaner cars

Despite incredibly high gas prices this past summer, Americans drove their cars in record numbers. While many complained about the $2.00-per-gallon they paid at the pump, Americans generally refused to curtail their sometimes-excessive use of their vehicles. These observations, coupled with the apparent American love affair with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, have created a situation unlikely to encourage auto makers any time soon to invest more money in building pollutionless or near-zero-emissions vehicles.
Ignoring auto-industry complaints, however, California’s Air Resources Board unanimously voted last week to keep a rule that requires 10 percent of cars sold in the state to emit little or no pollution by 2003. New York, Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont will do likewise, as they have all opted to follow California’s pollution rules. The federal government has given the Golden State the exclusive right to supersede federal authority in regulating air pollution due to the extent of southern California’s pollution problem.
As consumers are unlikely to pay the extra costs — up to $20,000 more than gasoline-powered cars — and accept the inconveniences associated with pollutionless, electric cars without significant marketing efforts by auto makers, the pollution-control board’s ruling is essential to putting cleaner cars on the road.
When the rule was originally created in 1990, 2 percent of cars sold in California were to be nonpolluting by 1998 and 5 percent by 2001. Successful lobbying by the auto industry urged the board to reconsider its original decision and remove those two deadlines, which were called impractical. Auto groups like the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 13 car companies, argued that they could not possibly reach the quotas because the high costs of electric cars and their small traveling distance — only 100 miles before they need a time-consuming recharge — make them a difficult sell.
Although meeting the 2003 deadline will be difficult (auto makers will have to build about 10 times more in the next three years than the 2,300 now on the road), the Air Resources Board has compromised in several ways that are beneficial to auto manufacturers and far superior to eliminating the rule altogether. The pollution regulator relaxed the rule for the six largest manufacturers so that 6 percent of their total can be near-zero-emission vehicles, like natural gas engines or gasoline-electric hybrids, and is considering subsidies to offset the manufacturing costs.
Board chairman Alan C. Lloyd said it was unlikely the 10 percent goal would be altered at all. Summing up the need for federal involvement in encouraging the development and practical use of pollutionless cars, Lloyd said progress toward nonpolluting cars would “dramatically decrease or stop completely without a clear regulatory signal.”
Indeed, environmentalists’ charges that auto companies have not tried hard enough to sell cleaner vehicles, or have even discouraged sales, seem justified in light of their record during the past ten years.