A Victory for the Gas-Powered Engine

Ending years of legal acrimony, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and Detroit’s automakers have agreed that manufacturers must sell a certain number of non-polluting vehicles in the Golden State. The news was hailed by CARB, environmentalists and the press as a victory for Big Government. "The Bush administration has been talking about a fuel-cell vision; California is actually delivering on one," thrilled Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In truth, however, the settlement is a victory for the gasoline-powered engine.

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CARB, California’s environmental regulatory body, has since 1990 sought to force automakers to build alternate-fuel, zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). By this year, CARB had decreed, 10 percent of vehicle sales must be battery-powered electric cars or hydrogen-fueled vehicles. The edict, however, ran smack in the face of engineering realities. Despite billions of dollars devoted to research, neither technology has proved affordable and neither will soon (if ever) sell anywhere near 10 percent of all vehicles.

To get around this problem, CARB has relented on a key concession to automakers: It has agreed that "hybrid" and so-called "P-ZEV" engines (the "P" stands for "partial") can qualify as zero-emission vehicles. Both technologies rely on the gasoline-powered combustion engine.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most Americans because it is caricatured in the press as a pollution-spewing behemoth, the internal combustion engine has quietly evolved into a clean and efficient engineering marvel.

Starting this year, the standard engine in Honda Accords and Nissan Sentras built for the California-market is essentially pollution-free (if they use low-sulfur gasoline that is already available in California). "You won't get to zero [emissions], but you will get pretty close," says University of California at Riverside’s Joseph Norbeck, who has conducted extensive research on the engines.

And Detroit manufacturers aren’t far behind. At this year’s Los Angeles auto show, Ford introduced a low-emission P-ZEV engine for all its Focus models. The 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine has more power and lower emissions than the standard 2.0-liter engine, Ford says. Though the technology will be slightly more expensive than the 2-liter, the cost differential will not amount to the exorbitant $3000-$7000 difference between gas-electric hybrids and gas-powered cars.

"We don't agree with mandated approaches to automotive technology, but the 2003 regulation might have the flexibility we've been asking for," says GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss. In other words, automakers can make an educated, economic bet that P-ZEVs, with an assist from gas-electric hybrids and assorted credits accumulated from golf cart sales and alternative-fuel research, will easily account for 10 percent of vehicle sales in California and probably the Northeast, where the mandates will be in place, within the next decade. J.D. Power, an automotive research firm, has predicted that hybrids alone will reach 5 percent of total national auto sales by 2008.

Environmentalists have been cool toward the P-ZEV advances for good reason: It threatens to rob them of their favorite villain, the internal combustion engine. In fact, the CARB agreement is a tacit acceptance that, despite the media trumpets, no alternative-fuel revolution is in the offing. The existing gasoline engine will do very nicely, thank you.

That may be bad news for environmentalists and their press allies who want to force-feed consumers green technology, but it is good news for a public that likes its transportation powerful, clean and affordable.

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Henry Payne is a free-lance writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News. This commentary was originally published on Aug. 26 by the Reason Public Policy Institute.