Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2006   by Jim Anderton, Technical Editor

Myth busting about cars and the environment

Vehicles today are hundreds of times cleaner than those of thirty years ago, a ratio far higher than the increase in the number of vehicles on Canadian roads.

Ever notice how much car-bashing is going on in the media these days around the environmental issue? The CBC radio program “The Current” put the “car on trial” and the resulting torrent of mistakes, lies and half truths about the environmental impact of vehicles drove me straight to the computer. Once and for all, someone’s got to set the record straight about light vehicle emissions, and I’m going to try right now.

Myth Number One: There’s a difference between pollutants and the big greenhouse gas, CO2. CO2 is implicated in global warming, but it’s not (right now at least) considered a pollutant, and no emission control system anywhere can reduce CO2 emissions. In fact, technology like catalytic converters generates CO2 by converting carbon monoxide, CO, which is a pollutant. The only way to reduce CO2 is to burn less fuel with more fuel- efficient vehicles and that means smaller engines or cylinder deactivation. And if environmentalists are hot about CO2, I’d suggest banning all those backyard propane and natural gas barbeques, whose combustion of hydrocarbons is uncontrolled. Might as well shut down the coal and natural gas power plants, too. Cars and light trucks are an easy target for environmentalists, most of whom live in urban Canada and can take public transit, which here in Toronto, is uncomfortable, infrequent and not inexpensive.

And that leads to Myth Number Two: Auto manufacturers are forcing gas-guzzling SUV’s onto the marketplace, destroying the environment. Last time I checked, auto companies were businesses, and like all business, they are expected to generate returns for shareholders. They’ll sell us oxcarts if we’ll buy them, and if Canadians prefer a Ford F-150 to a 1.5-litre econobox, should anybody stop them? Let car buyers know that there are environmental consequences for their purchase, maybe by a listing on the window sticker with things like gas mileage and such.

Sometimes, the argument is made that manufacturers could build cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles, but won’t because of some sort of conspiracy with the oil companies. This one has been around forever, but talk to any power train engineer anywhere and they’ll tell you that we’re reaching the limit of pollution control on internal combustion engines with gasoline and diesel fuels. To get much cleaner, we need cleaner fuels, something the oil industry has fought for years, until forced by government regulation, notably in California. Sulfur alone is a major killer of automotive emission control systems (mainly converters), but the industry has dragged its feet on low sulfur fuels for years. BMW has proved that we can burn hydrogen in internal combustion engines without waiting for fuel cells, but I wouldn’t bet the farm that we’ll see hydrogen at the local self-serve for a decade, if ever.

And now to Myth Number Three: Cars and light trucks are polluting the environment more than they did in the past. This one also defies logic, but in the unlikely event that SSGM is read by young environmentalists, I invite them to take a look at light vehicle emissions levels circa 1976 and compare them to 2006. Vehicles today are hundreds of times cleaner than those of thirty years ago, a ratio far higher than the increase in the number of vehicles on Canadian roads. Since that’s an indisputable mathematical fact, vehicles must be a decreasing component of the pollution problem. In the 70s, I was driving vehicles like the Ford F-150 and Pontiac Parisienne Brougham, and I didn’t think about pollution or fuel prices. Now I drive a 3.3L V-6 Caravan, and it passes Ontario’s I/M program, Drive Clean, despite 314,000 km on the odometer. I’m doing my part, but I also have a pristine 5.0 Mustang in the garage, and they’ll stop me from driving that when they pry the keys from my cold, dead hands.