Remote Controls


California may soon take a big bite out of automotive pollution—and save businesses thousands of dollars in the process. A bill in the legislature would encourage a precedent-setting remote-testing program that might replace some of the nation's toughest emissions regulations.

California's Clean Air Act requires each of the state's regional air quality management districts to develop a pollution-reduction plan. The plan designed by the South Coast AQMD, which regulates the Los Angeles Basin, forces big employers to cut the number of miles their employees drive during rush hours. Companies that don't develop and implement mandatory carpools or other trip-reduction schemes regularly get socked with $5,000 fines.

But these trip-reduction plans don't target the largest cause of auto-related pollution—the tiny minority of drivers who operate the dirtiest cars.

Data gleaned from the 1987 Southern California Air Quality Study (SCAQS) show that cars may cause more than three-fourths of hydrocarbon emissions and 90 percent of all carbon-monoxide pollution in our cities. University of Denver chemistry professor Donald H. Stedman has developed a portable remote infrared sensor that can accurately measure those emissions from cars as they drive on city streets. (See "Going Mobile," Aug./Sept. 1990.)

Stedman has found that 10 percent of all cars cause 50 percent of the carbon-monoxide pollution from cars; 10 percent of all drivers also cause more than half the auto-related hydrocarbons. (Many of these high emitters are the same cars.)

At a July SCAQS meeting, California Air Resources Board researchers Lowell Ashbrook and Douglas Lawson reported that Stedman's device correctly measures carbon-monoxide emissions 95 percent of the time and hydrocarbon emissions with 85-percent accuracy.

Yet federal and state regulators haven't approved remote testing as part of any pollution-reduction plan. Without these "clean-air credits," local pollution regulators have no incentive to use a technology, no matter how much it cuts smog.

This may soon change. A bill sponsored by state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D–Santa Barbara) would give businesses clean-air credits if they used the remote device to test and repair their employees' cars. Firms could substitute remote testing for carpools, subsidies for employees to use mass transit, or other trip-reduction plans. The bill, which the AQMD supports, must pass both houses of the legislature. A vote should take place this fall.