Organic Matter: California tightens up emissions controls on cars and trucks

Vehicle emissions were a concern during the time I was growing up on Long Island.

New York state required all cars and trucks to undergo inspection once a year, at which time how much and what types of pollutants were coming out of the exhaust pipe were measured.

Emissions had to be at certain levels, otherwise the owner had to spend money to correct the problem or take his vehicle off the road.

Equipment was also checked to ensure it was in good working order.

I lived in Florida for 20 years prior to moving to Kingman, and annual inspections were done there until the early 1980s.

One difference was emissions were not the big concern, just that the driver had a car or truck with good brakes, working turn signals and other items related to the mechanical operation of the vehicle.

When I arrived in Arizona in 1996 there was neither inspection for emissions or equipment in proper working condition.

In a sense, I went from strict government regulation to moderate regulation to none in three states.

Of course, no driver likes to be told he or she has an unsafe car or truck that needs repair to comply with state laws.

But it is hard to fault the reason for such regulation.

Scientists have, for years, warned about depletion of the ozone layer around the Earth from hydrocarbons and other emissions from vehicles and flourocarbons from certain products in aerosol cans.

The ozone layer is essential in filtering ultraviolet light from the sun, light which can lead to skin cancer in humans.

California has perhaps the toughest vehicle emissions regulations in the country.

That point was constantly driven home if you watched a television game show such as "The Price is Right" where a car was offered as a prize to a contestant and the announcer said something to the effect of "it meets California emissions standards."

In 1990, California enacted a zero-emission vehicle rule, the first of its kind.

But today it shows little in the way of actually creating zero-emission vehicles, according to an Associated Press story.

The mandate has prompted technological advances in battery technology for electric cars, computers, cellular phones and hearing aids.

However, the California Air Resources Board is considering whether to relax regulations that by 2003 call for ten times more electric cars on state roads.

At present, there are about 2,300 electric cars silently traveling smog-trouble streets and highways.

Letters indicate many people cannot find a zero-emission vehicle for sale.

Others indicate they cannot afford the much higher price.

A bill being considered in the California Legislature would offer $3,000 credits to anyone buying a zero-emission vehicle.

It also is believed mass production of such vehicles will drive down their cost and make them affordable to all.

But the present $3,000 credit falls well short of covering the price differential between and electric and gas-powered car, which the air board staff estimates at between $7,500 and $20,000.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers puts the cost of the vehicles at the high end of the range differential.

it also estimates it will cost $1 billion annually to meet the mandate requirements.

The air board staff estimated that when the mandate was approved in 1990 electric cars would keep 14 tons of pollutants out of the atmosphere daily.

The revised figure is now one ton.

In 1996, passenger cars in California emitted an estimated 1,530 tons of hydrocarbons and oxides of nitrogen daily.

The basics for California's zero-emissions rule:

• calls for 10 percent of all passenger cars sold in 2003 and beyond to be zero-emission vehicles.

• says electric cars are the only zero-emission vehicles, although those using fuel cells could eventually qualify.

• does not apply to small automakers like BMW, Volvo and Hyundai, who can meet the requirement through gasoline-powered cars certified as having near-zero emissions.

• says the big automakers of DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen must use near-zero emission vehicles to meet the 10 percent requirement.

But four percent of the cars may be electric.

• automakers can win exemptions by producing state-of-the-art electric vehicles and building them sooner than required.

The Air Resources Board must renew the mandate every two years.

It is expected to ask for some revisions including finding money to help subsidize electric cars.

Board staffers concede the goal of 2003 is unlikely to be met unless further assistance is forthcoming from state agencies.