A Comprehensive History of Reducing Automotive Emissions


The history of government actions taken to reduce the emissions of automobiles and all combustion engines is an exhaustive list going back over half a century.  This pressure meant that most of the solutions were developed by private industry in order to meet the ever-tightening demands of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Let's take a look at some of the key events in this process below:

The First Observation of Automotive Exhaust Linked to Air Pollution

It wasn't until the 1950s that automotive emissions began to come under scrutiny. In this case, they were being blamed for the Los Angeles smog. Although smog is a long-standing phenomenon in LA area that has more to do with nature than industrial pollution, the increasing toxicity of this microcosm set the stage of major changes.

The Foundational Government Actions to Solve Poor Air Quality

In 1970, the first Federal Clean Air Act with teeth is passed into law. It requires auto manufacturers to cut pollution levels by 90% in 5 years. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is created to both develop and enforce air pollution laws. A year later, The EPA starts the ball rolling with testing to measure the fuel economy of popular automobiles. The concept of miles per gallon becomes relevant for the first time.

After that, the ERG valve is developed by automotive manufacturers to recirculate exhaust for full combustion to meet NOx emissions standards. The EPA issues guidelines to gradually reduce lead in gasoline. They start to create incentives and organization in big cities to implement fuel-saving mass transit.

In 1975, the Energy Policy Conservation Act is passed into law by Congress to set objectives for improving fuel economy. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy program is implemented to set fuel-efficiency standards. Then, unleaded fuel becomes available to run the first-generation catalytic converter without risk of disintegration. The catalytic converter has a major impact on emission reductions. The toxicity of lead fuel raises awareness of lead toxicity in all industries.

In 1981, three-way catalysts with oxygen sensors and onboard computer controls which make the converters operate more effectively begin to appear on most new vehicles. A few years later, the first emissions testing station programs begin to appear in the most pollution plagued cities.

Beginning in 1985, The EPA sets and heightens standards to control a number of pollutants (Hydrocarbons, Particulate Matter, NOx, Sulfur, and Carbon Monoxide) across a broad spectrum of on-road and off-road motor vehicles. They set regulations to reformulate gasoline and to oxygenate gasoline in the areas with poor air quality standards. By 1992, oxygenated gasoline was available in cities with major pollution.

In 1993, The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles sets out to engineer vehicles with triple the current fuel efficiency without sacrificing performance, safety, and affordability. On New Years Day, 1996, the EPA kicked off the new year with a ban on leaded gasoline and starts its regulation of marine engines with 75-percent in hydrocarbon emissions goal slated for 2025.

From 1997-2002, the EPA continued to tighten regulations on emissions across the board and to expand the reach of emission controls into every industry and fuel-powered device. The EPA also introduces the SmartWay Transport Partnership Program to improve the efficiency of LTL freight through logistics. This, in turn, paved the way for LTL freight broker services to further enhance efficiency by putting pressure on carriers to optimize. These collaborative measures ensure that delivery and transportation services operate more effectively to reduce the number of hours and vehicles on the roads.

Starting in 2003, the EPA began to restrict emissions with tighter standards across aviation and other industries. They create better fuel-economy calculation standards that are more accurately related to real-world driving conditions. The EPA also creates the Renewable Fuel Standard Program to blend renewable energy sources into automotive fuel.

In 2008, the EPA began requiring large highway diesel trucks to be fitted with the Onboard Diagnostic (OBD) computer-controlled emissions fault detection systems that were implemented in other automobiles starting in the early 90's.

After demonstrating its success by 2008, the Tesla Roadster became the poster child for how the Lithium-ion electric car would outpace the combustion engine. Although there have been many electric vehicles historically, the Roadster set the paragon of what a modern electric car should be. Other manufacturers continue to build upon this platform and experiment with other alternative fuels.

What Are Auto Manufacturers Doing Today?

The innovation of private industry continues to develop vehicles that meet stricter emission standards by improving onboard technology and adding features to vehicles. The Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and the 10-speed automatic transmission recently developed by GM and Ford in a joint venture demonstrate a commitment to efficiency. These transmissions will adjust for the ideal gear ratio or virtual gear ratio to maximize fuel efficiency.

Turbo engines are the most efficient combustion engine and are appearing in more brands. The direct injection technology that injects the majority of fuel at the moment of combustion is also making vehicles more efficient. Diesel Particulate Filters and other clean diesel technologies continue to improve the particulate matter released from diesel vehicles by as much as 90%.


Although the EPA plays a critical role with studies and general game plans that pressure private industry into reducing air pollution, it is the innovative genius of automotive engineers that is reducing emissions by leaps and bounds.

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