EPA ozone standard tightens screws on automakers

  • 02-Jun-2008 09:13 EDT
Boxer image for MCM.jpg

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer  supports an ozone standard of .060 ppm, the level endorsed by public health advocates such as the American Lung Association.

The U.S. EPA’s new ozone standard will force every state in the country except possibly California to consider a number of steps that could have an important impact on automobile component design, especially with regard to onboard diagnostic (OBD) controls, the engine, and the catalytic converter. Some of those steps will be more radical still if the Democratic Congress decides to lower the new 0.075 parts per million (ppm) standard the EPA announced March 12. The new EPA standard is a reduction from the current 0.084 ppm standard. Ozone is the major component of smog.

But Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, verbally drubbed EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, saying, “thousands of lives could have been saved if the standard had been set in the more protective range, between 60 and 70 parts per billion unanimously recommended by EPA’s scientific experts.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) will hold hearings on the new standard in the House.

According to the EPA, about half the 700 counties in the U.S. it monitors for ozone concentrations flunk the new 0.075 ppm standard. These counties include some major metropolitan areas. Over the next three years, the states will have to develop State Implementation Plans to spell out how they would bring those non-attainment counties into line within a period of three to 20 years, depending on just how smoggy they are.

Ozone is created when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) mix in the atmosphere and are exposed to sunlight. Auto exhaust accounts for about 30% of the NOx and VOC emissions in most urban areas, according to various estimates.

States have a variety of tools for reducing those emissions. They could require auto manufacturers to equip cars with better catalytic converters, or service stations to require higher-quality aftermarket converters either when the “check engine” light goes on or when an auto flunks the annual or biennial emissions check that all states require. California, which has a 0.070 ppm ozone standard, had decided to do just that, starting in 2009.

Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says emissions of NOx and VOCs have been dramatically reduced by catalytic converters to the point where they are nonexistent once a car warms up. He says the industry is working to improve catalytic technology by, for example, testing different metals in their construction. “There will be additional opportunities for additional pre-smog emission reductions in the future,” he emphasized.

The particulars of any state’s emissions-inspection program is detailed in that state’s Inspection and Maintenance (I/M) program. Whether the inspection is required once a year or every other year, the car owner only comes in on the due date of the required inspection, unless his “check engine” light comes on. And even then, the car owner can ignore the light until the inspection date. In its regulatory impact analysis (RIA) accompanying the final rule on ozone, the EPA suggests states could develop “continuous” I/M programs in which OBD systems are monitored remotely, via some type of transmitter attached to the OBD port. The device would transmit the status of the OBD system to receivers distributed around the I/M area. Transmission may be through radio frequency, cellular, or Wi-Fi means. The RIA says radio frequency and cellular technologies are currently being used in the states of Oregon, California, and Maryland.

When a vehicle experiences an OBD failure, the motorist is notified and is required to get repairs within a normal grace period—typically about a month. Thus, continuous I/M will result in repairs happening essentially whenever a malfunction occurs that would cause the check engine light to illuminate. About 30 General Motors and Acura models with the OnStar telematics system can ask a remote operator to read the car’s onboard diagnostics system whenever the check-engine light comes on or the engine knocks.

Territo explains that those first-generation continuous I/M programs are generally administered by state agencies for state fleets. But there are a number of unresolved questions about how those programs would operate, especially with regard to privacy protections for the car owner’s auto data.

Because of its lower ozone standard, California is a good example of where other states will be heading. California’s LEV II (low emission vehicle) program covers the years 2004 through 2010. During that period, fleet emission averages are being tightened. That includes a whopping 75% reduction in NOx (hence the new requirement for aftermarket catalytic converters) from LEV I standards. Emission-control durability standards were increased from 100,000 to 120,000 mi for passenger cars and light trucks.

Other states will be looking at these kinds of mandates, or more severe ones, in the event Congress trumps the .075 ppm standard as Boxer and Waxman would like to do.


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