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'Cool cars' backfire

A state rule requiring tinted windows is an example of regulatory overreaching.

November 08, 2009

There's a law of diminishing returns for environmental regulation: As more specific rules are applied to ever-smaller details, the negative consequences can outweigh the benefits. California air and energy regulators, whose pioneering methods of reducing pollution and greenhouse gases have made residents justifiably proud, are approaching that tipping point.

Even as the California Energy Commission considers new efficiency standards for big-screen televisions that could end up deterring innovation and undermining its own goals, the state Air Resources Board recently made a similar mistake on automobile windows. The so-called cool cars initiative it approved this summer will force automakers to install solar glazing in the windows of cars sold in California starting with the 2012 model year. The theory is that by keeping cars' interiors cooler, there will be less demand on air conditioners. That, in turn, will improve fuel economy and reduce emissions.

Metallic glazing reflects the sun's heat off windows without reducing visibility. But it has a serious drawback: It can interfere with signals used by electronic devices such as cellphones, GPS navigation systems, garage-door openers, toll-booth transponders and even the GPS ankle bracelets worn by some convicted felons. The air board says it solved part of this problem by requiring carmakers to leave a small section of the windshield unglazed; some devices could be positioned to receive signals through this section.

The air board also performed tests of various electronic devices in cars with windows that would meet the standards and found that the coatings had no effect on their performance. But device makers cool cars initiative say the board's tests were inadequate because, among other things, it didn't spend enough time testing GPS systems in mountainous areas and high-rise urban districts. Garmin says Toyota tried and rejected metallic glazing because of its effect on electronics, although air board officials counter that Mercedes-Benz and Ford are already using it in some models without difficulties.

We'll stay out of that fight. We're more troubled by the fact that the air board seems to be breaking a cardinal rule of environmental regulation: Don't mandate specific technologies, just set broad standards and let manufacturers or polluters figure out how to meet them.

California approved tough rules on automotive greenhouse gas emissions years ago, and most of them were rightly adopted as a new national standard by the Obama administration in May. There are many ways Detroit can meet the standard, such as by reducing cars' weight or making them more aerodynamic. Now, however, regardless of what else they do, carmakers will be forced to install reflective windows in cars to be sold in California (and because it's not practical to retool solely for California cars, the rule will probably end up applying nationwide). That could discourage the development of other technologies that could accomplish the same goal at lower cost or with more consumer appeal.

It's probably too late to revisit the cool cars rule, but others are coming down the pike with similar flaws. If adopted, they could backfire.

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