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Smog in New York CityEnlarge PhotoDaniel Yergin is one of those authors who writes major works.
His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Prize is nothing less than the definitive history of the rise of the petroleum industry, and his latest, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, starts where that book left off and looks forward into a future of multiple energy sources. Which brings us to a piece he wrote last week in the Los Angeles Times, looking at the history of smog and its role in the development of modern-day electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt.
Yergin's summary history may be a touch optimistic--we think it's too early to tell if the arrival of the very first electric cars is the mark of "a shift back" to 1900, when more electric than gasoline cars were sold in major cities--but his story of the scientist who decided to decipher smog is well worth the reading. Arie Haagen-Smit was able to prove, quickly, that smog was caused not by more than 1 million backyard trash-burning incinerators but by the incomplete combustion of gasoline in the region's millions of automobiles--which in 1948 had not a shred of pollution control equipment of any kind.
California became the first state in the nation to mandate pollution controls, well before the 1970 establishment of the U.S.
The first attempt in the late 1990s didn't stick--that's another story for another time--but CARB's grandfathered ability to set its own emissions standards has exerted a powerful pull on national standards.
It is planning to add requirements that automakers sell rising percentages of zero-emission vehicles on top of the proposed national corporate average fuel economy standards, as it disclosed last month in standards it's expected to adopt in February.
Those rules will take 2025 model-year vehicles to an average of 54.5 mpg (which translates to window stickers in the low 40s). We encourage you to read all of Yergin's article, to gain an understanding of how California came to have its special significance in modern electric-car history. And if you ever visited the Los Angeles Basin on a hot, overcast day (they're known as "inversions") when the smog was at its worst, you'll understand exactly why it all came to be.
The fight to improve air quality may not sound like fodder for a typical Hollywood blockbuster, but Honda has done its best to make the topic exciting. The latest short film in the company's Environmental Short Film series--this one titled "Never Ending Race"--depicts Honda's efforts to respond to the far stricter Federal and state environmental legislation in the 1970s that resulted from efforts to improve the heavy air pollution in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

While Los Angeles was experiencing around 100 Stage One smog alerts a year, Honda had just ended several years of competition in Formula One racing. According to Honda, the tightening of emissions standards that followed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 was a challenge similar to the competition of top-level racing. 1975 Honda Civic CVCC.Enlarge PhotoBoth involved extracting maximum vehicle performance from a strictly defined set of rules.
While many other automakers balked at the idea of cleaning up vehicle emissions, Honda's engineers took a "positive attitude" and dove into the challenge. The climax of the film is the launch of the CVCC engine in 1975, which met California emission standards without the addition of an expensive catalytic converter. Honda continued to keep pace with ever-stricter emissions standards through the final decade of the 20th Century: The 1996 Honda Civic was the first production car to be certified as a low-emission vehicle under California regulations.
This was followed by a number of other firsts, up to the latest 2014 Accord Plug-In Hybrid, the first car with any kind of gasoline engine to meet the California Air Resources Board's super ultra-low emissions vehicle 20 (SULEV 20) standard--the strictest so far.
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