Environmentally Correct Cars: The Air You Breathe

         He was a 1950s visionary with an ominous prediction for the future of the automobile, but his view was crystal clear. When Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit, a Dutch biochemist living in Southern California, revealed his findings that a toxic photochemical reaction was occurring between sunlight and vehicle/industrial emissions, there was no turning back.

        The only question was, how best to go forward?

        That was the issue that the California legislators in Sacramento pondered when they responded to his findings by writing the first auto emissions guidelines in 1959.

        The new emission guidelines were followed in 1961 by one of the first emissions control devices that we still have on cars to this day: the positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) system. Prior to the use of the PCV system, crankcase combustion gases were piped directly out of the engine into the atmosphere. The PCV system was employed to channel “blowby” engine gases back into the engine’s incoming air/fuel mixture to be “reburned” before finally exiting with the exhaust gas. While not eliminating the gas completely, this step reduced its toxicity.

        It wasn’t until 1966 that widest automobile exhaust emissions standards were imposed on new cars sold in California. This was also the first time that the automobile was looking less like a miracle of transportation and more like a genie out of the bottle … and industry insiders were looking for that second wish.

        While California led the nation with the first steps toward reducing auto emissions, Washington bureaucrats knew that the rest of the country was also going to need air pollution control measures. By 1968, the U.S. government required the other 49 states to adhere to the same emission control standards as California with the national “Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act.”

        Subsequently, California has continually led the national smog control campaign by imposing the most aggressive exhaust emission reduction standards in the United States. As a result, since 1968 automobile exhaust emissions have been reduced nationally by more than 90 percent. Yet, like going on a diet to lose 15 pounds of weight — it’s getting rid of those last two pounds of weight that can be the most difficult.

        The quest toward ultimately producing a “zero emissions” vehicle is continuing. International vehicle manufacturers are exploring electric drive systems as well as power from alternative fuels. In the interim, local focus and efforts continue to aim at the cars that are currently on the road.

        If you own a California motor vehicle, then you are required to have your car’s exhaust and engine emission control systems inspected every two years — or whenever transferring ownership. This test employs a visual, diagnostic and tailpipe emissions analysis in a “static” state. That is, with the vehicle parked and in neutral during the entire test procedure.

        We now have a statewide change in this test program which employs a “dynamic” test. This new procedure incorporates a dynamometer to simulate actual driving speeds during the emission test. The dynamometer is a set of rollers that allow the vehicle’s drive wheels to rotate and simulate on-the-road conditions, even though the vehicle is parked — similar to the function of a home treadmill for stationery walking or jogging.

        This, as well as other more advanced emission testing procedures, are being explored in pilot programs around the poorer air quality regions in California. Though bureaucratic negotiations continue, you can expect to see some enhancements to California’s emission testing within the next two to three years.


        When you look at the size and complexity of the environmental challenges in our world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Yet, your individual actions are part of the moving collective effort that will bring about positive change. According the US. Environmental Protection Agency, the average car emits about 19-20 pounds of carbon monoxide (CO) per gallon of gas. If you switch from a car that gets 18 mpg to a car that gets 28 mpg, you’ll cut your CO output by 36 percent.

Here are a few other suggestions that you can follow, starting today:

  • Keep your car in good tune. Poorly tuned engines pollute more and waste gasoline.
  • The EPA estimates that 65 million cars on U.S. roads have underinflated tires, resulting in an average decrease in fuel efficiency by five percent. So keep up with tire pressure checks.
  • Don’t “top off” at the gas pump — it only pushes gas vapors into the atmosphere and can also damage your car’s fuel vapor recovery system.
  • Be aware of the smell of fumes or leaks — in addition to representing possible safety hazards, they are also sources of pollution. Check and repair ASAP.
  • Keep your air conditioner properly charged and maintained. “CFCs” escape through leaks in conventional air conditioners and damage the stratospheric ozone layer — not to mention your pocketbook if you delay repairs. One of the best “maintenance tips?” Run your air conditioner  at least once a week — it keeps the seals and bearings lubricated.
  • Don’t start your car until your ready to drive. The idea of a “warm up” is history. Today, you can start your car and drive as soon as the instrumentation/warning lights (oil pressure, etc.) indicate “normal.” Drive gently for the first few minutes, and know that a moving car has a better functioning catalytic converter (lower emissions).
  • Combine trips for errands; carpool; accelerate gently; and don’t tailgate — in addition to minimizing your chances of an accident, the extra space minimizes that “on again, off again” throttling you’d need to read that person’s license plate renewal date.

        Of course, it’s also best if you simply minimize the use of your automobile by walking or using a bicycle whenever possible. The Chinese and Europeans have had the right idea in this area for years. Not only will this benefit your cardiovascular system, but also the air you breathe!

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