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Pollution Regulation: A Better Way (2002)

Here is how the U.S. government currently regulates these:

  • Pollution: Poisons are regulated in terms of proportions: how many parts per million can be carbon monoxide, how many can be NOx, etc. These standards are different for cars and "all but cars" (sport-utilities, minivans, vans, and pickups).
  • Fuel usage: All the cars sold by each automaker must have an average of 27.5 mpg (combined, using a different formula than the one seen by consumers on their price sticker). This means that Chrysler can sell more Neons to compensate for their sales of Magnums. In addition, trucks, SUVs, vans, and minivans are held to a much lower standard of 20.5 mpg (even though minivans and most SUVs are used as cars). The penalties for violating CAFE regulations are scant, and many see them as more of a publicity problem than a financial one.

Does this make sense? We think not.

We have already tackled the silly CAFE regulations, which reward automakers for building heavy SUVs and minivans, and penalize them for building more-economical station wagons and cars that can actually tow. This week we will look at the pollution requirements.

Let us consider what we are trying to accomplish, something often lost in regulatory battles. We are trying to reduce pollution. In the past, that meant reducing poisons such as carbon monoxide and NOx. Now that we are pretty sure global warming is a reality (at least, the scientific community is), reducing carbon monoxide also seems like a good idea. Therefore, the goal is simply to reduce all tailpipe emissions, of everything except water, which we can generally regard as being safe.

How can we achieve this goal most effectively?

First, we should look at reducing overall emissions. Mass transit should be available as an option to everyone, and it should receive the same subsidies as automotive transportation. Either make every road a toll road, or give mass transit the same subsidy as the automobile. Personally, I would prefer to relax on the train on my way to work. I could use the time to rest, to read, to write editorials. It would allow me to drive a "hobbyist car" like a 340 Plymouth Duster in my spare time, while still producing much less pollution than I do now.

Second, we should continue to try to build more efficient engines. Technology can be wonderful. A 224 horsepower Dodge Spirit R/T has about the same gas mileage as a 100 hp Dodge Spirit, with a very similar engine but without sequential multiple-port fuel injection, distributorless ignition, dual cams, and an intercooled turbocharger. A 2-liter Neon engine produces better acceleration than yesterday's 3.7-liter Dart engine. And small investments can yield big economy savings, as the Liberty Project discovered.

Third, we should change our regulations. This might be the most important thing we can do, because the regulations are the main driver of efficiency.

Our goal is to reduce tailpipe emissions. Starting from that point, the idea of regulating parts-per-million seems pretty silly. Even if all you want to cut down is CO and NOx, why use proportions? (This became very clear to me when I switched from a Camaro to a Rabbit, and failed CO inspection despite much lower overall emissions of CO). If you want to reduce total CO produced, why not regulate the total CO production? Why use a proportion?

The answer seems to be that using a "total emissions" approach would hurt large car sales, which is where automakers make most of their money. (The profit from one Expedition is higher than that of many Tauruses.) However, the regulations should not be written by automakers, with their profits in mind. They should be written by legislators for people.

The next question is why the emissions rules are different for cars and noncars. We really have no answer to this. Apparently, the California Air Resources Board does not have an answer either, because they (to the strong protests of the industry) are phasing in an equal-proportions requirement. Even that does not address the real problem. Trucks use more gas per mile than cars. Therefore they produce more pollution per mile than cars, and they will even when they have equal proportions of pollutants!

Again, our solution is simple: total emissions. Use something similar to CAFE, with a formula like this: produce whatever cars you like, with whatever emissions percentages and equipment you like, but the total you can pollute must be x pounds per car (on average) of this pollutant, y pounds per car of that pollutant, etc. Just like CAFE, except with no car/truck differentiation. If it's used as a commuter vehicle, it should be regulated as one. Smaller cars can have a higher percentage of polluting gases, if their gas mileage compensates for it.

As a happy by-product of this end-goal approach, companies will be able to implement special new technologies which allow extremely high mileage, but exceed current parts-per-million regulations, such as diesel-electric hybrids. The end result: less overall pollution, less burdensome regulation, and a good deal for the consumer and the air breather alike.

A reply

Being a small car owner for 40+ years and having suffered getting my little cars through New Jersey's old state run inspection (which included CO and HC testing) all I can say is hurrah to your editorial. It is too bad you aren't in a position to make laws.

The best description I have heard of SUVs has been “modern Buick Electra Station Wagons” - we have re-invented the gas guzzler in a new form. My son’s comment has been - why drive a gas guzzling truck for 365 days a year when it only snows less then 20 days a year here in New put up with lousy handling and a truck like ride (and poor gas mileage) for 345 days in order to have four wheel drive for 20 days. Why not rent one for the 20 days?

I am a big rail/trolley fan and take the train whenever I can. Recently New Jersey had a big success story regarding railroads - a few hundred feet of track was laid to connect two rail lines and allow direct access from a wealthy western suburb into New York City.... prior to the work it was estimated that 1200-1400 people would use it, on opening day in excess of 2,000 people used it and current ridership is something like 4,000 per day. Their biggest problem is they don't have enough railroad cars to carry all these new passengers.

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