IN the nation's effort to clean up smog, Uncle Sam traditionally has played the role of white-gloved inspector, sticking a finger in the tailpipe of American cars to make sure that not too much dirt was coming out. But in recent years, as urban skies have continued to turn dishwater brown and few new rules have come out of Washington, a number of states have been taking the lead in determining how much pollutants cars should produce.
This was dramatically underscored again last week when first New York and then California adopted stringent new pollution standards for automobiles.
The moves by the nation's two largest states - particularly California - will have a dramatic impact on the assembly lines in Detroit, in the way oil companies operate, and on millions of consumers who buy tomorrow's cars. Presumably, too, they will be felt by future generations who breathe the air in some of the nation's largest cities.
``This is historic,'' says Larry Berg, a board member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the agency that oversees air quality in the Los Angeles basin, of California's move. ``It is not going to solve the problem, but it sure keeps us going down the road.''
California, with the nation's dirtiest skies, already had the most stringent air-quality rules. Now, with its latest move, it has taken another quantum leap forward - one that will likely result in millions of electric cars and alternative-fueled vehicles being on the roads by the late 1990s.
Under rules adopted Friday by the state Air Resources Board, virtually every new car sold in the state 10 years from now will have to cause 70 percent to 84 percent less pollution than 1993 models sold here. Tailpipe emissions will be cut in half beginning as early as 1994. By 1998, 2 percent - or about 40,000 of the new vehicles sold in the state - will have to be electric powered. That number will rise to 10 percent by 2003.
Because of their stringency, the new rules are also expected to lead to a dramatic expansion in the use of cleaner burning methanol, ethanol, and compressed natural gas.
``Even by California standards, this is a big step,'' says Bill Sessa, a staff member with the Air Resources Board (ARB). ``We are really outlining a whole new generation of cars and fuels that will be phased in over the next 15 years.''
The move upsets Detroit, but automobile manufacturers say they will try to meet the standards. Most already have programs under way to develop electric cars. They have also been working on vehicles that can run on any combination of methanol and gasoline.
Even so, there will still need to be plenty of retooling if Detroit is to meet the strictures in the nation's biggest car market.
``There is a tremendous lack of technology that is capable of achieving these standards,'' says Gregory Walker of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, a trade group. ``It seems that all the low fruit on this technology has been picked.''
Big Oil is in for some changes, too. Faced with competition from alternative fuels, oil companies have been developing cleaner-burning gasoline blends to try to hang onto their market share.
While they are free to continue to push this technology to try to meet the new tailpipe standards, most analysts expect there will be at least some shift to natural gas and other fuels.
Under the ARB's rules, service stations in the state will be required to sell alternative fuels. The oil companies and station operators, however, did win one capitulation: The agency rejected the idea of requiring dealers to meet alternative-fuels sales quotas.
While the ARB's new strictures set the tone for California's war on smog into the 21st century, they may also set the tone for the rest of the country in the future. California is the nation's pacesetter in establishing air-quality rules.
That was clearly evident with New York's move last week. It adopted the standards California now has in effect for 1993 model cars. Other Northeastern states have indicated they want to implement California's current auto emissions rules, too, and are looking at the new blueprint as well.
Few analysts expect California's latest move to dramatically affect the haggling in Congress over revisions to the Clean Air Act. But how well the plan works will shape future debates on emissions standards.
``No matter where we are going with pollution controls, California is going to get there first,'' says Daniel Weiss of the Sierra Club. ``The question is whether Congress will allow the nation to follow.''