There Could Be a Shiny New ZEV in Your Driveway Soon

February 28, 1993|By MICHAEL K. BURNS

"I wish they all could be California, I wish they all could b California, I wish they all could be California Caaars." With apologies to the Beach Boys and California Girls. Someday soon you may be driving a ZEV, if Gov. William Donald Schaefer has his way.

It's not a Russian import model styled on the unlamented Yugo. It's a Zero Emission Vehicle, powered by electricity, solar energy or natural gas, part of the stable of cleaner-running autos that Maryland would require to be sold here, as part of a Northeast regional plan to reduce air pollution.

Like most tastes automotive, the ZEV originated in California. Within a decade, at least 1 in 10 new cars sold will be a ZEV.

For nearly a quarter-century, that quintessential car culture has had tougher tailpipe emissions standards than the rest of the country to counter the worst air pollution problem in the nation. Compounded of intensive human and auto populations, a topography that traps polluted air masses along the coast, and excessive sunshine that converts auto gases into harmful smog and ozone, California's dirty air required special solutions.

Automakers must meet tougher exhaust standards for models sold in California than in the other 49 states. California cars have longer warranties on emissions systems, a different computer chip for fuel injection: the 1993 models are about 40 percent cleaner-running than the U.S.-standard models. With 22 million registered vehicles and 13 percent of the U.S. car market, California could demand this separate treatment of manufacturers.

Last month, the federal government approved even tougher standards proposed by California for cars sold there over the next decade, a phased-in production of new autos that will be from 50 percent to 85 percent less polluting than 1993 models. ZEVs would account for 2 percent of California autos sold in 1998, 10 percent in 2003.

The federal government is also tightening exhaust pollution standards for cars sold in the rest of the U.S. By 1996, all new cars will have to meet tougher tailpipe rules that are close to California's 1993 standards

Other federal measures -- cleaner-combustion fuels, tighter inspection rules, vapor recovery systems on cars and gas station pumps -- will kick in before 2000.

The combined effect is projected to reduce an auto's emissions of hydrocarbons by 30 percent and nitrogen oxides by 60 percent. These emissions, reacting with sunshine, are the principal ingredients of unhealthy smog.

Maryland and 12 other Eastern states (with a total of 30 million registered vehicles) want to go a step further than these federal rules and adopt the stricter California standards to meet their federally required cleanup targets.

The Baltimore airshed, which stretches from Washington County Cecil County, has to reduce smog pollutants by 40 percent and eliminate harmful ozone levels by 2005.

The alternative to cutting auto exhausts would be tighter controls on business and industry that would amount to economic suicide.

In Maryland, Environment Secretary Robert Perciasepe reckons that use of California-type cars would reduce air pollution by an equivalent of 27 million auto-miles a day or the output of 12 Sparrows Point steel complexes, compared with the use of U.S.-standard autos.

There will be immediate clean air effects: 10 percent of 1994 California models will be 50 percent cleaner than their all-U.S. counterparts. But the main impact will be measured over the long term, as the new cleaner cars replace older dirtier models.

For consumers, the difference in cost between a California-standard auto and a U.S.-standard car could range between $200 and $1,100, depending on who is doing the calculations. Manufacturers take the high numbers, state regulators the lower numbers: they differ on replacement life of parts, the impact of different grades of fuel, and about the cost of pollution-control technology not yet in production.

The figures also reflect notoriously imprecise computer models of air pollution and the unknown impact of other auto air cleanup regulations.

For example, California will require a special formula, cleaner-burning gasoline for new low-emission vehicles -- which could cost 25 cents a gallon more than normal premium grade.

Maryland and its neighbors don't plan to do that, as much out of fear of consumer-political backlash as from supply practicalities. Oil companies say they don't want to provide that lower-sulfur fuel outside California. Even without that special fuel, California models can cut pollution significantly, Mr. Perciasepe says. Automakers claim the cleaner fuel is essential for the California engines to run properly.

The Maryland General Assembly defeated similar bills for California-car programs the past two years. This year's legislation will have a joint House-Senate hearing Thursday.

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