Smart cars vs. US emissions standards

I enjoyed Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, but it didn’t scare me. Nothing he suggested sounded too alarmist, everything he described pretty much fit my model of how we treat the environment.

I support the movie so much that I suggested he and the movie’s producers have an almost moral obligation to give it away for free—in order to reach the widest possible audience. I’m upset that it appears forces have intervened to prevent the film’s distribution to teachers across the country. But I’m happy that company’s like the one behind have seen fit to donate thousands in order to get the movie to teachers.

With all that said, one part of the movie stuck in my craw. It’s the slide about an hour and a half in where he’s describing automobile emissions standards in various countries.

Screenshot from Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth

On one level I tend to believe it. On the other hand, my experience outside the US (primarily in developing countries) I found the air along roads in Kazakhstan and Ghana hard to breathe compared to the US. Of course they’re not represented on the slide. I wonder how strict enforcement is in countries like China and Australia. In Japan and the EU, gas is not subsidized like it is here, so that expense pretty much mandates ultra high efficient vehicles.

What does not compute are things like this:

Only now, after a three years of working to get the cars to meet U.S. safety and environmental regulations — and battling with giant DaimlerChrysler — is there a respectable batch of cars to dole out to dealers…The EPA didn’t approve the emissions modifications until late last year, and every subsequent model year will require going through the approval process again…The cars can’t be sold in five states with the toughest emissions standards, including New York and California.

How can it be that the Smart car developed for the EU market can’t meet emissions standards in the US? It gets 50mpg!!!


Diesel engines are better at fuel economy but not at particulate emissions.


Higher emissions of what we deem harmful typically lead to higher mpg. In 1978 I took a 1977 Chevette and with a few mods, including removing the CAT, had it getting 34mpg with a carburetor. 40mpg with EFI would have been easy. One way tot look at it is that with electronic controls we have been able to keep fuel efficiency level as we continue to choke the life out of the internal combustion engine. We make the car run inefficiently clean and and then use a CAT to soak up/burn off the unburned HC, basically unburned gas. The best was during the 70’s when US auto makers installed cheater pumps on vehicles. They would inject volumes of air into the exhaust so when a probe was attached at the tailpipe, the HC ppm were lower. Same principal as light beer. Of course they mumbled something about oxygen needed to help the CAT burn off the HC, but it was same crap from manufacturers too lazy to change and yet another pump sucking another 7-10hp from an already neutered engine. And if you don’t understand any of this, you shouldn’t be writing a column on the subject.


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