IN an unusual gesture of compromise toward environmental officials, the United States auto industry plans to propose emission standards soon that are stricter than federal guidelines.
To an extent, the planned concession for clean air is a forced one. The industry is seeking to discourage several Northeastern states from adopting rigorous and costly emission mandates already in force in California.
The California standards require the industry to spend billions of dollars to develop, produce, and mass market ``zero emission vehicles,'' or electric cars, by 1998.
``We have to reach cooperation, otherwise we'll end up with regulation,'' says Reginald Modlin, manager for vehicle emissions regulatory planning at Chrysler Corporation.
Environmental regulators say the industry initiative is a tactical move designed to undermine the consensus among the 12 states that intend to adopt California's strict emission controls. The states are members of the Ozone Transport Commission, which was established under the Clean Air Act to advise the Environmental Protection Agency.
Carmakers seek ``to divide and divert the states of the Ozone Transport Commission from proceeding with regionwide adoption'' of the California standards, said Thomas Jorling, commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in testimony before Congress on Oct. 7.
But industry executives say their proposal illustrates some convergence in the aims of the automakers and regulators.
Over the years, as the auto industry has steadily reduced the amount of harmful gases emitted by the combustion engine, the cant of its technology and bureaucracy has slowly leaned more in line with that of federal and state regulators, these executive say.
Automakers and regulators still are often at odds. But they will more easily find unanimity as clean-air mandates tighten and the task of eliminating the remaining harmful emissions becomes more difficult, they say.
``We're trying to get on common ground, this is not something we're offering or the government is offering to us, we're coming together on this,'' says Mr. Modlin at Chrysler. ``This takes an attitude change by a lot of people who have been in place for a lot of years; that momentum is hard to break and it has taken a conscious effort by both sides to understand each other.''
Regulators say the industry is making its proposal grudgingly.
``The seriousness of having an entire region adopting the low emission vehicle program has brought the industry to the point where they realize they can't just continue to stonewall, sue, and misrepresent the benefits of the program,'' says Michael Bradley, executive director of Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, an organization of state air pollution control officials based in Boston.
Still, the planned initiative suggests that the auto industry is willing to be flexible on the issue of clean air. ``The positive side is the fact that they have come up with a constructive proposal,'' Mr. Bradley says. ``Up until now, the industry has resisted any efforts on our part to provide clean cars in the future, other than measures already required in the Clean Air Act.''
In the most dramatic sign of cooperation between the auto industry and government, the Big Three automakers and the Clinton administration in September announced a 10-year, $1 billion project to produce an affordable ``clean car'' three times as energy efficient as anything on the road today.
Most significantly for automakers, industry technicians will gain access to the nation's weapons labs as a source for know-how in creating the ``super car.''
While working more with government, Chrysler, the Ford Motor Company, and General Motors Corporation have also disregarded decades of cutthroat rivalry and considered joint development of an electric car.
Meanwhile, the automakers have denounced the California mandates and labeled the electric car as economically unfeasible. Regulators disagree, noting that some types of alternative cars could immediately offer the country a broad range of benefits.
``There is no question that clean cars, based on natural gas and even alcohol fuels can be built, both economically and technologically now, with benefits for the environment, national energy policy, and international competitiveness,'' Mr. Jorling said in testimony before Congress.
Still, the auto companies say that consumer demand rather than government edict should drive mass production of the electric car and other low emission vehicles. All three companies manufacture electric vehicles. But the vehicles have a limited range and cost several times more than standard gasoline cars.
``We're not opposing the electric car, we're opposing the mandate to sell so many,'' Modlin says. The California mandate requires automakers to ensure that electric cars represent 2 percent of their total auto sales in the state by 1998.
A federal judge ruled on Nov. 2 that Massachusetts could adopt the California standards. The judgement contradicted a ruling by another federal judge earlier this year barring New York from doing so.