In 1970, as the US planned new emissions standards to combat Los Angeles smog, we examined the pollution problem
The New York Times recently wrote that “friendly generational relations” have broken between Gen Z and their elders. Indeed, it’s easy to apply blame for issues now present – above all, climate change.
One could certainly point an accusatory finger our way. In 1970, Autocar editor Peter Garnier called the emissions standards introduced in California to combat smog a “hoohah” with “very limited relevance to the rest of the world”.
Worry had been sparked in the city of Los Angeles due to the frequent presence of photochemical smog in the presence of strong sunlight, attributed to vehicular emissions of nitrous oxides (NOx).
Facing pressure over the issue, US president Richard Nixon announced future plans to control exhaust emissions even further – “to such an extend that before long, the internal combustion will not be able to comply”.
“Suddenly, the world has become acutely conscious of the uncontrolled poullution of the environemnt by waste products of our own inventiveness,” responded Garnier. “So much is so that in 1970, European Conservation Year, an extensive effort is being made to get this under control before it is too late. A tiny facet of all this is the poullution of the atmosphere, brought to a head by the extraordinary and almost one-off geographical circumstances of Los Angeles.
“In a peculiar, emotional wave of worldwide publicity, this purely local problem has been thrust upon the car manufacturers who have been forced by the US government to modify engine design. Now, no car may be sold anywhere in the States unless it complies with very stringent standards governing its exhaust and other emissions. Reluctantly, we accept this as a fait accompli.”
Garnier continued: “For too long already, the motor industry has taken the blame for, and paid for the research to reduce, pollution. In January, the president of General Motors [GM], Edward N. Cole, tossed the political ball into the petroleum industry’s court, by calling in effect for the lead additives to be taken out of petrol, as this would cause ‘a reduction in hydrocarbon emissions of about 40-100 parts per million.
“Tetraethyllead is added to petrol to raise the octane number, so its removal would call for lower compression rations and reduced engine efficiency.”
This argument was only logical at the time, but by the end of the decade, we had learnt that lead ingestion has horrific effects on humans, including brain damage, hypertension and learning disorders in children and heart attacks, strokes, and other diseases related to blood pressure in adults. There has even been research indicating that it increases proprensity toward aggressive behaviours.
“If there were any evidence to indicate that harm is being done to people or plants by what is currently permitted to emerge from a car’s exhaust,” concluded Garnier, “we would be wholeheartedly behind the campaign for further drastic change. At the moment, there is no such evidence outside of Los Angeles and perhaps Oakland, up the coast. Whatever the motivations may be in the States, they seem neither to be well founded biologically nor even practicable.”
To explain the issues, Autocar went to expert Charles Goodacre.
“First among the problems being drummed up,” he began” is exhaust emissions of carbon monoxide, unbumt fuel as unburnt hydrocarbons et cetera in the exhaust gas, as emitted to the atmosphere from the exhaust pipe. Lately, a new troublemaker has been added to the list in the form of NOx from the fuel burning in the cylinder in the presence of air, a mixture of approximately 20% oxygen and 80% nitrogen.
“The oxygen oxidizes the nitrogen as well as the hydrocarbon fuel or petrol in the combustion process in the cylinder, thus producing NOx, which are claimed to discolour the atmosphere and encourage the formation of photochemical smog in the presence of strong sunlight. It has been estimated that in a city like Los Angeles, with five million cars, 8000 tons of CO, and 900-1000 tons of unburnt fuel are emitted into the city streets every day.
“Second, crankcase breather emissions, piston blowby of unburnt fuel and some leakage mainly under cold running conditions. Third, static emissions from the car after stops hot. These emissions come mainly when the carburettors absorb the heat rising from engine, causing the fuel to evaporate into the atmosphere. Also, there is the problem of evaporative loss in the petrol tank.
Fortunately, the latter issues were largely fixed, as most cars by 1970 were being sold with closed-circuit crankcase breather systems, referred to as PCVs. Fuel tank emission control prevention mechanisms, meanwhile, were well down the development path at both Chrysler and GM.
However, CO and hydrocarbon exhaust emissions were the “real headache”. Great resources were being ploughed into developing solutions and testing; one European firm, we reported, had already spent £2m on a bespoke laboratory and had 1000 engineers tasked there, with a doubling of scale already planned.
“Let us get one point quite clearly in our minds,” Goodacre sniped. “There is not one single shred of factual evidence that can be brought forward that proves that can be brought forward that exhaust emissions from motor cars, in any normal domestic service, are causing any harm to any person anywhere in the world today.”
Indeed, he almost saw it as a great conspiracy: “Since the automotive emissions problem was first brought up by California in 1949, it has snowballed into a wave of politics, emotion, hysteria, misconception, ignorance, some science and downright dishonesty allied to commercialism, to the point where tens of thousands of people today are making a good living out of automotive emissions. These people are not going to let go now.
“So, we are in for expensive solutions the the problems which do not appear even to exist. Whether we like it or not, we are going to pay the price of what is now required. In the process, the performance of our cars may be curtailed in terms of power, economy and increased maintenance to conform ewith the emissions laws, and the purchase price will go up.”
When you see the landscape of scientific understanding as it was in 1970, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to be angered by previous generations’ actions. What is often now perceived as ignoring the pollution problem was really ignorance of its existence.
In another half a century, how might future generations judge us? There are potentially huge missteps being taken right now, even with the best of intentions. Lithium ion batteries could well be one. Who knows what others there may be?