Several of my articles have discussed that fact that a single entity can influence changes in car design or fuel usage. California is one such entity. Over 50 years ago the State of California started to push for emission controls that would affect the whole car industry.
California has the biggest population of any State in the USA and is the third biggest by land mass. This means that the market for any product is likely to be huge and gives the legislators a lot of power to dictate what is sold there.
Let’s set the scene. For many years the US was the largest market for cars in the world and the big companies played lots of tricks to force people into cars – for example General Motors bought up bus companies and then closed them and the lobbying for larger and wider roads lead to cities being dominated by cars with minimal choices for public transport.
In 1966 California’s Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board created the worlds first emission control standard and in 1967 California passed the Mulford-Carrell Act that combined the Board with the Air Sanitation Bureau to form the Air Resources Board. One of the prime targets for this new Board was the pollution that California was suffering thanks to the rapid increase in car usage.
During the 1960s, parts of California were covered in smog – the combination of exhaust gases being held low by atmospheric conditions. So the new emissions laws meant that the manufacturers had to prove that their vehicles passed the law before they could be sold. Clearly it is expensive to develop a model solely for one State and another version for all other markets. So the by-product was that all cars that were to be sold in the US had to meet the California laws.
The first laws targeted the release of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide and then later they campaigned for the removal of lead from fuel, which has now been removed from petrol around the world.
The stricter standards laid down by California lead to the EV1 electric car developed by General Motors that was available in California and Arizona. Both States had enacted a Zero Emission Vehicle Program. The program was designed to reduce smog and improve the quality of air in California’s cities. It worked to a degree although it has been modified several times and is the basis for several policies relating to low emission vehicles. The EV1 though, didn’t last as long as the laws.
The Air Resources Board was also responsible for forcing the oil companies to change the refining process of oil by reducing the content of ingredients like sulphur thus making the pollutants less hazardous – the Government had done extensive research on the effects of different types of pollutants on humans especially children.
In recent years the Board has been at the forefront of the battle to reduce carbons from pollutants and their efforts have forced every car manufacturer to develop low emission cars because many other US States and countries have either adopted California’s standards or developed their own that are very close. This is one reason why manufacturers have been given funds by their home governments to help develop engines that met the standards.
Importantly, California respected that pollution was not just produced by cars but by other vehicles like trucks and motorcycles etc. They have been keen to ensure that all internal combustion engined vehicles have to meet the standards, typically based on the number of grams of carbon released per kilometre.
California was also the instigator of the low-carbon fuel standard that has been adopted by many governments around the world. These rules are designed to provide a framework around LPG, ethanol or bio-fuels. One of the concerns with these fuels is about the chemicals mixed with the base fuel to improve combustion and therefore create power. California is focused on ensuring that new fuels have as minimal pollution as possible when burnt.
The manufacturers realised that to sell cars in the US they would have to conform to the strictest standards. In doing so, the manufacturers developed their technology and indeed met those standards, however, as we know today, some of the vehicles that were sold didn’t conform to the standards at all, they simply provided the expected test results and were allowed to be sold.
It’s no surprise that California and neighbouring States such as Arizona have become the centre of the electric vehicle manufacturing business. Tesla took over from GM/Toyota at the old NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc) factory in Fremont outside San Francisco and several other low volume manufacturers are building sites there.
California’s Silicon Valley is also a major centre for autonomous vehicles with Apple, Google and even the established manufacturers setting up research centres. Consumer technology is now crossing over with automotive technology and northern California is the place to be for the interchange of ideas: think lithium based batteries, once the domain of computing, now they power cars too. Detroit is no longer the hub of the US automotive design and manufacturing – it might still be the traditional heart of the industry, however the tentacles are now pointing at California for new ideas and tech.
I like visiting northern California, it is steeped in automotive history and there is a buzz around the skunkworks of Silicon Valley that you know is developing the next great idea. I’m not a fan of the concept of an autonomous vehicle, however I do like the technologies that are being developed to provide new fuels and new materials to build cars.