All Commentary
Wednesday, January 1, 1997

A Sentinel for Auto Emissions

Remote Sensing Would Eliminate the Hassles of Smog Checks

Dr. Klein, associate professor of economics at Santa Clara University, is co-author with Pia Koskenoja of The Smog Reduction Road: Remote Sensing Versus the Clean Air Act, recently published by the Cato Institute.

The 1992 Clean Air Act amendments require local governments in smoggy regions to abide by an array of tough regulations. The most controversial are Smog Check, car-pooling mandates, electric vehicle sales quotas, and alternative fuel programs. Yet it may be time to expunge all of these command-and-control measures.

Consider Smog Check, which requires that cars have their emissions tested every other year. The vast majority of motorists spend a lot of time and money to find out that their car is clean. It’s like making people report for a scheduled checkup to prove that they do not have halitosis.

In the past few years, scientists have developed a new technology called remote sensing, and it promises to be the silver bullet for auto-generated smog. Remote sensors are mobile roadside devices that read tailpipe emissions using infrared and ultraviolet beams. They measure carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons with very good accuracy and nitrous oxides with fair accuracy.

Imagine the following system: government randomly scans your car’s emission levels using remote sensors and reads your license plate. If your emissions are excessive, you get a postcard. Because the technology is so inexpensive, the government can read your car four or even eight times a year. First you’d get warnings. If you continued to drive in a smogsome fashion, you’d get fines. If you refused to pay the fines, you’d eventually get pulled over and your car would be impounded.

Sound scary? Maybe the remote sensor isn’t very accurate. Maybe the license plate identification is faulty. Maybe the remote sensor caught your car during an uncommon acceleration. Big Brother is sniffing your tailpipe!

In fact, there isn’t much cause for alarm. The key point is that more than half of the auto-generated carbon monoxide comes from less than 10 percent of the cars. The same is true of hydrocarbon emissions. The problem is a small number of extremely dirty cars. The roadside sensors can use lenient criteria to make almost certain that only the truly polluting cars receive citations. Furthermore, synchronized radar guns can check your acceleration and infrared cameras can check whether your car is warmed up.

No one wants to be subject to a new penalty or fine. But the bright side is bright indeed. Remote sensing will intrude on your life only if your tailpipe emissions continue to exceed the limits.

More important, a full-scale remote sensing program is all we really need to police against excessive emissions. We’ll have to live with the chance of smog fines, but we can get rid of Smog Check, forced car-pooling, forced alternative fuels, electric vehicle mandates, and meddlesome regulations imposed on engine design in Detroit.

All these programs have been notoriously troublesome, bureaucratic, politicized, and inefficient. My research indicates that a remote sensing program implemented in Los Angeles would prove far more effective than the current Smog Check program—at one-fifth the cost. A recent on-road study in Orange County, California, conducted by the Desert Research Institute, found that a program of remote sensing combined with free engine repairs reduces emissions 10 to 20 times more cheaply than does mandatory car-pooling. With remote sensing on duty like a passive sentinel, we can be free of meddling and hassles and really clean up the air.

Remote sensing challenges the entrenched groups who stand behind all the inefficient programs. Its advancement has been a slow and arduous battle. But no slower than we should expect from the massive and lumbering system of policymaking. Every year remote sensing is in greater usage on the road, and is becoming known to the public. It is destined to change the face of air quality management.

  • Daniel Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and associate fellow at the Ratio Institute (Stockholm). At GMU he leads a program in Adam Smith. He is the author of Knowledge and Coordination: A Liberal Interpretation and editor of Econ Journal Watch.