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PZEVs: almost Pollution-Free Cars

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New Cars Are An Environmentalist's Dream

USA TODAY - September 16, 2003

Motor Trend

Imagine a car that pollutes so little, the exhaust is cleaner than the air you breathe in many cities, so nearly free of pollution that it's immeasurable by normal means.

Now imagine that instead of a science-fiction machine, it looks and drives like any other car, is priced about the same and uses the same unleaded gasoline you've been buying at the corner station.

Ford and Toyota begin selling such cars nationwide next month, the first time that the superclean models will be available in showrooms in all states. The automakers are sweetening the package by swallowing the cost of making the vehicles nearly pollution-free.

Seven car companies have begun selling such low-polluting cars in California, where they are called PZEVs, for partial zero-emission vehicles. They're all normal vehicles -- Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, BMW 325 -- that look and perform just like their non-PZEV counterparts sold in other states. California car buyers might not even have known they bought low-pollution models, so innocuous are they.

California, because of its smog, requires the biggest automakers to sell PZEVs and other low-pollution vehicles to help the state meet federal clean-air standards.

The extra cost of PZEV (pronounced PEE-zev) hardware is estimated at $500 a car by automakers and consultants, but at less than $200 by California clean-air officials. Whatever the amount, most car companies say it is enough to discourage them from offering PZEVs nationwide.

"We're fairly certain our customers would be unwilling to pay it," says Kevin Cullen, staff development engineer at General Motors' Milford, Mich., proving grounds and technical adviser for GM environmental programs. "If the sticker price reflects the difference in costs, we don't think there'll be a whole lot of PZEVs sold in the open market."

Ford and Toyota are going nationwide, nonetheless, to spread the extra cost of California PZEV hardware over more cars and to earn public relations points for showing environmental concern.

Ford's 2004 nationwide PZEV Focus starts at $14,915. That's $115 more than a similarly equipped, standard-emissions Focus. But the PZEV model comes with a more-powerful engine that normally would be more than $115 extra.

Toyota's nationwide PZEV is a gas-electric hybrid, the redesigned '04 Prius. So not only is pollution minimal, fuel economy is high -- forecast at 55 miles a gallon in combined city and highway driving. The '04 Prius is bigger and more powerful than previous models, which have not been sufficiently pollution-free to qualify as PZEVs. But the price is unchanged from the smaller predecessors: $20,480.

If Prius were the only U.S.-wide PZEV, other automakers could dismiss it as a niche model. But now that Ford has tossed strong-selling Focus into the pot and made the PZEV engine a desirable high-performance option on its own, it's tough to look the other way. Ford is putting additional pressure on other automakers by promising to sell all its future PZEVs nationally. Next up is a gas-electric hybrid Escape sport-utility vehicle in 2004, then the Futura sedan.

Even if other automakers don't follow suit promptly, they'll have to move in that direction as U.S. auto-pollution regulations get progressively stricter starting with '04 models and begin to converge with California's pollution restrictions the next few years.

"It's only a matter of time before essentially all gasoline-fueled passenger cars and light trucks are PZEVs," says Tom Austin of Sierra Research in Sacramento, which studies clean-air issues for government and industry.

"Once the technology has been demonstrated, once it becomes clear it's something that can be manufactured and will perform in customer hands -- even if the costs don't come down significantly -- it'll be difficult for the evolution toward the near-zero-emission vehicles to stop," says Austin, who worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and was head of the California Air Resources Board.

CARB, which sets the state's clean-air standards, projects that automakers will build 275,000 PZEV cars annually for the state in '05, rising to 800,000 annually in 2018 and after. In addition to the increasing number of nationwide PZEVs, some of the California cars will find their way into other states as the cars change hands in the used-car market.

Thus, "huge numbers of everyday cars built to the cleanest internal combustion standards on Earth" will begin to make up a bigger portion of the market, says CARB spokesman Jerry Martin.

California is the single biggest new-vehicle market, about 10% of U.S. sales, making it a hefty enough tail to wag the dog.

"You're more or less compelled to have increasing numbers of PZEVs if you want to continue doing business in California," says Cullen. He says GM will manufacture what it must for California, but he won't say what models those will be.

The amount of pollution that engineers can have removed from the internal-combustion gasoline engine amazes the engineers themselves and earns respect even from those who want gasoline power to go away.

"We've seen the near-impossible accomplished with gasoline vehicles," acknowledges Alan Lloyd, chairman of CARB, which favors electric cars over gasoline vehicles.

"I never even considered, five or 10 years ago, that I'd be able to talk about PZEV gasoline vehicles," says Dave Szczupak, Ford Motor vice president in charge of engines and transmissions. "It's no one thing. It's attention to a lot of details."

Typically, PZEV cars have engines designed from scratch to burn cleanly. The combustion is controlled more precisely by higher-powered engine computers. The catalytic converters are packed with about twice as much of the expensive metals that scrub out air pollutants.

Tailpipe pollution of a PZEV is as much as 90% less than from other new cars. But that's only good enough to earn California's SULEV designation -- super-ultra-low-emission vehicle. To go the next step and reach PZEV status, the vehicle also has to prevent gas fumes from escaping.

To eliminate evaporative emissions usually requires an impermeable steel gas tank instead of the cheaper plastic tank most cars use. The fuel lines and connections are unusually robust. Extra carbon-filled filters keep gas fumes from escaping from the engine itself.

If, after all that, the automaker will guarantee that pollution levels will stay within a specified range for 150,000 miles or 15 years -- vs. 80,000 miles or eight years under '04 federal regulations -- then the vehicle earns California PZEV status. If it's also a gas-electric hybrid, as the Prius is and the Escape will be, it is designated AT (for advanced technology) PZEV. AT-PZEV cars are labeled "cleanest" on CARB's auto-buying Web site, one notch higher than PZEVs.

The cars won't deliver California levels of low pollution without California's unique blend of low-sulfur gas. Higher-sulfur gas doesn't ruin them, though. A diet of California gas would return the cars to true PZEV performance, auto and fuel engineers say.

But even on non-California gasoline, PZEVs pollute little. Ford says the PZEV Focus puts out a pound of smog-producing pollutants in 15,000 miles on California gas, roughly two pounds on typical U.S. fuel. A non-PZEV Focus would put out 10.7 pounds in 15,000 miles, Ford calculates.

Starting in January, U.S. refiners will begin cutting the sulfur content of all gasoline, heading for the 30-parts-per-million level California currently requires.

"Most fuels will be there by 2006," says Jerry Horn, product engineering manager in charge of gasoline at Chevron Products, a unit of ChevronTexaco.

California drops to 15 parts per million Jan. 1, but "there'll be only modest improvements" in emissions vs. 30 ppm, according to Steve Westland, Chevron Products consulting engineer on fuel regulations and emission technology.

Regardless of whether they wear PZEV badges, all '04 Focuses with 2.3-liter engines will be identical to California PZEV Focuses. And all Prius hybrids will have the full complement of California PZEV hardware.

The biggest hurdle for the PZEV Focus and Prius could be credibly marketing them as near-zero-emissions vehicles, especially the Focus.

"We've been trying to educate the world that, hey, you can make very clean (gasoline) cars. We did a study and people just wouldn't believe that the exhaust could be as clean as the air: 'Nope, not buying it,' " Westland says, suggesting how hard it will be to convince buyers the cars are as clean as automakers say.

GM's Cullen says PZEVs not only will be hard to market believably but also are an expensive way to clean the air. "The way air quality gets better is that somebody scraps an old vehicle, and a new vehicle comes in at the top of the chain and replaces it," he says.

"Fifty percent of pollution comes from the oldest 10% of cars," he says. It's an argument often used in favor of proposals to get older models off the road.

Austin, the consultant, agrees that scrapping old cars would clean the air fast. But he says if an individual state offered high enough bounties for old cars to scrap them, it would become a magnet for old cars from all over and could go broke. Federal officials have been unwilling to take on a nationwide old-car scrap program.

Nissan pioneered California PZEVs with the 2000-model Sentra CA. Now, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, Volvo and even high-performance brand BMW sell them. By 2011, there should be about 3.4 million PZEVs on California roads, says CARB spokesman Martin. "My personal feeling is that eventually all cars (sold in the USA) will be PZEVs. It's so easy to do."

He sees them as a permanent part of the clean-air solution. He says that Californians keep cars 12 to 15 years because they don't rust, delaying the turnover that would bring more PZEVs into the mix faster.

Driving the PZEV expansion is California's so-called ZEV mandate. Imposed in 1990, it envisioned that 10% of auto sales in California by the biggest manufacturers would be battery-power electric cars by now. But battery cars proved too expensive and unpopular. And battery cars can be dirtier than PZEVs when calculations include pollution from power plants that furnish electricity to recharge batteries.

GM, DaimlerChrysler and GM-controlled Isuzu sued to block the ZEV requirement. A compromise finally broke that logjam last month. The new version of the ZEV rule envisions fuel-cell electrics instead of battery cars.

Meantime, automakers can earn so-called ZEV credits via PZEVs. An automaker must amass ZEV credits equal to 10% of its production for the California market by 2008. That rises to 16% in 2018. Each PZEV sold is worth 0.2 of a full ZEV credit under California's scoring system. A fuel-cell vehicle gets 40 ZEV credits.

The state could fine an automaker up to $5,000 for each vehicle that it falls short of any year's quota. Strictly speaking, it could order a car company to quit doing business in the state, though that's considered remote.

The picture's murky until 2005, when the car companies tell CARB which mix of PZEVs and electric cars they plan to sell to meet the clean-car quotas. It'll probably be two years after that before CARB has enough information to determine whether companies are meeting the quotas, Martin says.

Automakers seem generally in favor of fuel cells, but affordable, mass-market versions are years away. Honda has three fuel-cell vehicles in the USA, leased to the city of Los Angeles for everyday duty, and plans two more by year's end. Toyota has four, leased to the University of California, and plans four more by the end of the year.

GM has a prototype chassis but no completed vehicles.

Automakers would have to build just 250 fuel-cell cars by 2008 to keep up with the California regulations, and auto engineers say it would be years after that before fuel-cell cars showed up across the country, even in tiny numbers.

Thus, PZEVs are a clean-air key. They -- not electric cars -- "are the fruit of the ZEV program," Martin says. "The original reason that PZEVs were built was so (automakers) could say, 'We built these gas cars so good, what do you need (electrics) for?' Cars would not be at this state of cleanliness if not for the ZEV mandate."Cover storyCover story

© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY.

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