A Golden Compromise

A landmark agreement last week between the state of California and a group of automakers should mean cleaner air and fewer polluting, gas-guzzling vehicles on the road.

General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and Isuzu agreed to drop lawsuits against the Golden State over its zero-emission-vehicle program; California agreed to withdraw its appeals in those cases.

The dispute goes back to 1990, when California created its zero-emission rule, requiring that 10 percent of all cars sold in the state between 2003 and 2008 be pollution-free - that is, electric. Automakers balked at the new rules.

Over time, however, the state's Air Resources Board came to realize that fully electric cars weren't a viable option. (The battery technology didn't deliver, and the cost has remained prohibitive.) It has worked with Detroit over the past 13 years to extend its deadlines and rewrite the regulations.

Now the emphasis for US automakers is where it should have been a long time ago - on producing more fuel-efficient hybrid cars, which run on both gasoline and electricity. (Japan's Toyota and Honda already offer such vehicles in the US market.) And the deal includes a requirement to make more fuel-cell vehicles, powered by hydrogen or other clean-burning sources.

The compromise comes at a good time. Americans' lovefest with SUVs has put overall fuel economy at a 22-year low. And California had its own incentives to spur action - the state has the nation's worst air pollution - with 25 million cars rolling around its roads creating roughly 50 percent of its smog.

The agreement should have nationwide effects: Other automakers will probably now move to produce more hybrid cars. And states in the Northeast - which share similar pollution problems and often follow California's lead - will have a new blueprint to work from.

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