The Future of Cleaner Cars

Californians are poised to again set the trend in environmentally sensitive cars under the global warming bill signed earlier this week by Gov. Gray Davis.

In the 1990's, Californians readily bought and drove cars emitting just one percent of the smog-forming pollution emitted by the cars they drove in the 1970's, reaping a major reduction in unhealthful air pollution.

In the first decade of the new millennium, state motorists will become the first to drive cars that reduce emissions causing global warming.

While the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association has denounced the new state law and plans to challenge it in court, what many Californians do not know is that the auto companies already are selling or preparing to market vehicles that easily will meet the new standards.

Moreover, California taxpayers have helped pay for development of these new vehicles. Their federal taxes supported the Department of Energy's $1.5 billion Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles program in the 1990's and their motor vehicle registration fees provide ongoing funding for numerous multi-million dollar a year state clean vehicle programs.

In essence, California's new global warming law only claims the rewards of what the public already has paid for: vehicles that will save motorists money on gas, emit less of the global warming gas carbon dioxide, and reduce smog-forming pollutants too.

The new cars will save Californians some $2 billion a year at the gas pump, or about $2,200 over the life of each vehicle, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Producing, servicing, and marketing the new models will create almost 24,000 new jobs in California by 2015, the scientific group adds.

Key to the automotive advance is a new hybrid drive-train largely developed under the government subsidy programs that combines the gasoline-powered engine and electric motor to more than double vehicle mileage. Unlike today's electric cars, however, hybrid drivers do not have to plug in and recharge their vehicles.

General Motors is poised to begin marketing new low-emitting, high mileage hybrids beginning in 2004, well ahead of the 2009 deadline set in the new California law.

"Rather then forcing everyone into a small vehicle, we can offer consumers a choice," said GM Vice Chairman Harry J. Pearce in announcing the auto giant's plan. "You want a high mileage minivan? Fine. You want an SUV with a towing capacity and better fuel economy? We could tailor the powertrain to meet that need too," Pearce said.

Across town in Detroit, Ford Motor Co. is planning to sell a 40 miles per gallon hybrid version of its popular sport utility vehicle, the Escape, at the end of 2003. "It will offer the same functionality as the base product," said Prabhakar Patil, chief engineer on the Ford project.

In Germany, DaimlerChrysler plans to begin marketing fuel cell vehicles in 2004, which ultimately could operate on pure hydrogen without burning fossil fuel.

"We have created new vehicles which consume less energy and emit less carbon dioxide from one generation to the next," says Klaus-Dieter Vohringer, a board member with DaimlerChrysler.

Toyota boasts that it already has sold more than 100,000 hybrid vehicles worldwide, including some 90,000 of the Prius, a four-door, five passenger car that gets 52 miles per gallon in the city.

Honda has begun marketing a new hybrid version of the popular Civic, after successfully launching the Insight, a hybrid two-seater.

Davis summed it up when he signed the bill: "The technology is available. It's affordable. And it's widely used in other countries."

While the Congress recently voted down a bill to require increased automotive fuel efficiency, other states may eventually follow California's lead in the fight against global warming. The Clean Air Act gives states the power to impose California vehicle emissions standards, instead of accepting weaker federal standards.

William J. Kelly served as spokesperson and communications manager for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the air pollution control authority for the greater Los Angeles area, and as a writer and senior editor covering the environment in Washington, D.C., for BNA, Inc.

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