The Car Con Job

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Recently by Eric Peters: Routine Maintence Often NotRoutinelyDone

We reached the point of diminishing returns as regards vehicle emissions technology, probably 20 years ago. Maybe even 30. There was a huge reduction in smog-forming compounds as a result of widespread adoption of catalytic converters (mid 1970s) and then fuel injection (mid-1980s). Since then, further reductions have been incremental and lately, infinitesimal.

Most people do not understand this.

For instance, when it is announced that New Technology X will “cut tailpipe emissions by 10 percent,” which sounds very impressive, the truth is usually less spectacular. They invariably neglect to mention that new cars are already 97 percent “clean” at the tailpipe – and have been, for years. That is, only about 3 percent of the exhaust output of a late-model car is other than water vapor and C02 – neither of which have any bearing on smog formation or air pollution.

Hence, New Technology X will actually (if the claim is taken at face value) reduce that remaining 3 percent of “bad stuff” by 10 percent. And three percent of 10 percent is a great deal less than the implied 10 percent of 100 percent. In fact, it is a fractional reduction. Almost unmeasurable – and more to the point, negligible as regards the vehicle’s “impact” on air quality. Put another way, the difference in emissions output between say a 2000 model year car and a 2012 model year car is on the order of 1 percent or less.

And these literally fractional improvements often come at great cost relative to what’s gained – exactly the opposite of the first-generation emissions controls, which made huge strides without adding massively to the cost of the car. A simple catalytic converter, for example, massively alters the quality of the exhaust output, curbing the harmful emissions by double digits – for about $200-$400 or so. A simple throttle body fuel-injection system achieves a similar reduction relative to a carburetor – and (again) without adding a massive expense to the car. Adding an overdrive gear to the transmission dramatically cuts fuel consumption – which also lowers total exhaust emissions simply as a result of burning less fuel.

All of these things have been in widespread use since the mid-1980s. This is the period when the major gains, in terms of reducing vehicle emissions, were achieved. Put another way, the basic problem has been solved for more than 20 years. Cars have been “clean” for decades.

So why do we – why do they – continue to tilt at windmills? Why continue to invest huge sums – and impose huge costs – for ever-diminishing returns? Mostly, it’s because of the lingering perception that cars are still “dirty” – which they aren’t. This, in turn, provides the rationale for increasingly unreasonable federal regulations – regulations that demand fractional reductions of the remaining fraction of vehicle exhaust that’s not clean. That previously mentioned 3 percent.

Whatever the cost. To be paid by you.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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