Does the Clean Air Act prevent you from buying cleaner cars?

Greetings from the Birmingham, Alabama airport, where my languishing is made ever so much better by the free wireless. See, it’s not so backwards here after all.

Are there secret extra-clean cars that people outside of the northeast or our own enlightened California can’t buy? That’s what this MSNBC article by Lawrence Ulrich claims. He says that the Clean Air Act prevents automakers from spreading this glorious technology to the teeming masses, at risk of being fined $27,500. But Ulrich doesn’t explain why the Clean Air Act says this – is it a loophole? A nefarious conspiracy? – and goes on to imply that automakers don’t WANT to sell these clean cars in states where it isn’t required, because they are simply more expensive to make.

I’m not familiar enough with the Clean Air Act to figure it out myself, but Sebastian Blanco on Auto Blog Green tried to make sense of the MSNBC article.

What I think Ulrich means is that car companies cannot sell a car and call it PZEV outside of states that have taken California’s laws as their own. The vehicles might be the same, but the name is different.

A commenter, Chris M, has a different theory:

There is a misunderstanding of the law. It doesn’t prohibit sales of a “California standards” clean green car outside of CA, especially since in many cases there is only one model for the country and it meets CA standards. It does prohibit any state from enacting a “third standard” different from CA or Federal standards.

So why are some green versions sold only in CA? The charitable excuse is limited availability, they only have enough for the CA market. The main reason would be that the non-green model sold outside of CA is cheaper to make and has a higher profit margin, so the dealer has to come up with a silly excuse for not being able to sell the green version, hoping not to loose the sale. I’m betting that the “illegal to sell” and the “$27,500 civil fine” were made up by a dealer on the spot, and has now become another urban legend.

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