Fleet managers might not spend much of their working days worrying about politics in the state of California, USA, but a bill passed this week will have long-term ramifications for the worldwide car industry – UK fleets included.
The governor of California has been battling against the monolithic US motor and oil corporations to pass Assembly Bill AB1493, which will require car makers to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions produced during the production and working life of cars.
If it eventually forces the world's biggest, most wasteful car market to cut emissions and fuel consumption, and to look more keenly at alternative fuels like hydrogen and fuel cells, then the development of the car towards becoming a more environmentally friendly machine will receive a massive shot in the arm.
The standards will force manufacturers to hit fleet averages for greenhouse gas emissions rather than in individual vehicles, although car makers will be able to use environmental improvements in factories to help hit the mark.
The initiative flies in the face of the Bush administration's opposition to the Kyoto treaty, which set out to limit the effect of industry on global warming.
The governor of California, Gray Davis, said: 'This is the first law in America to substantively address the greatest environmental challenge of the 21st century. In time, every state – and hopefully every country – will act to protect future generations from the threat of global warming. For California, that time is now.'
California, which represents 10% of the US car market, has often set the trend in worldwide car production and Davis believes it will lead the way in cutting greenhouse gases. He was dismissive of car manufacturers' claims that to hit stringent targets, costs would go up, specification would have to be stripped and value for money would decline.
He said: 'The technology is available. It is affordable and it's widely utilised in other countries. Opponents of the Bill say the sky is falling in. But they said that about unleaded gasoline. They said it about catalytic converters. They said it about seat belts and air bags. But the sky is not falling. It's just getting a whole lot cleaner.
'This legislation is based on four square sound science. Global warming is no longer a theory. It's an urgent reality.'
The Bill directs the California Air Resources Board (ARB) to consider the costs of technologies already in place such as tyres with less rolling resistance and less polluting coolants in air conditioning systems, as well as advanced innovations like hybrid power units.
Actual greenhouse gas limits and fuel economy targets have not been suggested yet, although the ARB aims to demand 'maximum feasible reductions'. It has until 2005 to come up with suggestions and a year for the legislature to be reviewed, before becoming mandatory in 2009.
Environmentalists were defeated in Washington earlier in the year when they tried to impose improved fuel economy standards on car makers. And the US equivalent of the SMMT, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) smells a rat, claiming the bill is an indirect way of introducing such legislation.
Because of smog problems in Los Angeles in the 1960s, California is the only state that can introduce its own emissions and efficiency standards. The AAM believes this is a back door way of making car manufacturers clean up their act.
The AAM will challenge the Bill in court, stating that such legislation can only be brought in at federal, not state, level.
It argues: 'California's attempt to directly regulate the CO2 emissions from vehicles is tantamount to a state version of federal fuel economy mandates, which is pre-empted federal law.
'Even if state regulators find a loophole to get around federal regulations and adopt this mandate, it may force automakers to strip from vehicles popular products that consumers demand.'
The AAM believes the Bill could force Americans to drive smaller, lighter and less powerful vehicles. And while much of the rest of the world downsizes, Americans really do not like the idea.
As a rule of thumb, less weight and better fuel efficiency results in less greenhouse emissions, but with the American motorist threatening revolt should prices reach $1.70 (around £1) per gallon for petrol, the issue of fuel economy in the US has an unreal air to it compared to Europe.
A USA Today editorial in 1999 claimed 46,000 people had died in accidents in the US as a result of being forced into smaller cars because of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy legislation. CAFE was established in 1975 as a means of improving average manufacturer fleet fuel consumption in order that America would not be dependent on foreign oil.
It states that the average fuel economy of a manufacturer's cars must be 27.5 mpg, and the massively popular minivan, van, truck, pick-up and SUV market must hit a paltry 20.7mpg average.
A fleet manager used to hitting 40mpg or above in the UK might be incredulous at such figures, but according to the AAM, demand for cars that 'sip' fuel at 30mpg or above is minimal, and the manufacturers offer a pitiful array of choice.
On its website, the AAM boasted: 'Automakers offer more than 50 vehicles (including various powertrain combinations) that achieve more than 30 miles per gallon. These fuel-efficient vehicles are available today.'
The UK has 1,432 new models available that achieve in excess of 30mpg.