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Car Makers to Challenge State's New Emissions Law

Autos: Manufacturers say they are committed to vehicles that emit fewer greenhouse gases--but at what they call a more realistic pace.

July 26, 2002|TERRIL YUE JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — Auto makers say they plan to take California's new emissions law to court and stop it in its tracks, much as the industry did in derailing the state's attempt to mandate zero-emission vehicles.

The industry acknowledges that putting up a fight could create a public opinion backlash, but the manufacturers say they remain committed to introducing vehicles that emit fewer greenhouses gases and pollutants and get better mileage--just at a more realistic pace.

"We're very confident the court will recognize that California is impinging on federal jurisdiction," said Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the main industry trade group. "The state cannot set its own fuel-economy standards."

Gov. Gray Davis on Monday signed the nation's first bill to fight global warming by restricting emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Although the bill does not spe- cifically call for increased fuel economy, the auto industry sees it as a thinly disguised attempt to legislate more miles per gallon.

"By virtue of physics, it can't be anything else," Shosteck said. "The only way to produce less carbon dioxide is to combust less fuel. There's no device you can bolt onto a car that will do it."

Auto makers have been incrementally reducing emissions and boosting mileage with new engines such as those with variable valve timing and displacement on demand, which shuts down cylinders when not needed, and with hybrid vehicles that combine gasoline engines and electric motors.

Industry executives and outside experts agree that the ultimate solution is fuel cells, which turn hydrogen into electricity while producing water as a byproduct. But they also say the legislation's requirement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2009 is asking too much too soon of fuel cells, given the technology and its cost.

"I'm very optimistic of the future of fuel cells, but when you look at 2009, there's not a chance," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "People need to understand that the state of engine technology is based on a hundred years of work. The easy and inexpensive cards have already been played."

Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of DaimlerChysler's Chrysler Group, said he supports improved fuel economy but not when mandated by the state.

"We think it's important to do car by car and truck by truck. We don't think it's the best idea to force customers into a mix of cars the customer wouldn't choose himself," Zetsche said Thursday.

"Of course, we are working to improve fuel economy ... but there are physical issues. The weight and performance of the vehicle have an impact, so if you want to reduce carbon dioxide, you can take certain safety [features] and weight out, and the car has reduced emissions significantly."

Even Honda Motor Co., which Wednesday won the first state and federal government certification to sell a fuel-cell car in the U.S., warned that the technology for mass production would be far from ready in six or seven years.

"Fuel cells are at least 10 years off, and easily 20 years," said Art Garner, a spokesman for Torrance-based American Honda Motor Co.

Honda, the only major manufacturer not in the alliance, has not decided whether it will join the lawsuit.

Certification for the Honda FCX paves the way for the Japanese auto maker to begin leasing the two-door, four-passenger fuel-cell vehicle to government and institutions by the end of the year. It gets the equivalent of 50 miles per gallon, making it one of the most fuel-efficient cars available. The problem is it's not the type of vehicle most people seek.

"There are 50 different models that get 30 miles per gallon or better, and very few people buy them," said Shosteck of the auto alliance. "We make plenty of fuel- efficient cars. The problem is that most Americans with work or family transportation needs want something more versatile and powerful."

That's part of the argument in support of the alliance's planned lawsuit: The majority of Americans buy light trucks--pickups, sport utility vehicles and minivans--and the new law would require smaller vehicles that burn less fuel, limiting Californians' choices.

The auto makers are likely to prevail in their lawsuit, said Chris Struve of Fitch Ratings. It is consumers, he said, who are driving the trend toward bigger, gas- guzzling trucks because they "can no longer find a car that comfortably seats a family of four."

The thrust of the industry's planned response is its claim that California acted illegally in attempting to set fuel-economy standards, a task that is the domain of the federal government. California is the only state with power to set its own vehicle pollution standards, but the industry maintains that carbon dioxide does not fall under that authority.

The law, hailed by environmental groups, requires an unspecified reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases by the 2009 model year. The state Air Resources Board is to determine the extent of emission reduction by 2005.

But the Washington-based alliance, made up of 13 auto makers that sell cars and trucks in the U.S., says it is optimistic about the lawsuit because the industry's legal and lobbying efforts recently have thwarted other initiatives.

Earlier this year, an attempt in Congress to increase average fuel economy standards for cars and trucks was defeated. Last month, a California court enjoined the state's mandate that would have required a certain number of zero-emission vehicles by the 2003 model year.

Think tank director Cole points to one solution that few consider: a new generation of cleaner diesel engines.

"A Chevrolet Suburban with a diesel engine would get 30% better fuel economy and produce 30% less carbon dioxide," he said. "But California doesn't like diesels."

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