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Unless you’re a car nerd like me, the acronym CARB – which stands for California Air Resources Board – probably isn’t familiar to you. However, almost every major advancement in vehicle emissions controls has been a direct result of the CARB’s regulatory efforts. If you enjoy breathing clean air, you owe the California Air Resources Board a debt of gratitude.

Imagine A Car Without Emissions Controls

In 1953, LA’s freeways were under construction.

To understand the CARB’s impact on air quality, let’s hop in the wayback machine and travel back to 1960. At the time, California has 16 million residents and 8 million cars on the road… and none of them have any sort of emissions control equipment. The stench of unburnt gasoline (aka hydrocarbons), various noxious chemicals (mostly sulfur and nitrogen oxides), and large amounts of carbon monoxide hang in the air. In major metropolitan areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles, permanent clouds of smog envelope the city.

The recently established California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board (which would later become CARB) determines that an established technology – known as a Positive Crankcase Ventilation valve, or PCV valve – can substantially reduce the amount of unburned fuel in the air. This will directly effect the state’s smog problem, as unburned fuel is a precursor to smog. While the U.S. federal government toyed with legislation mandating PCV valves in all new vehicles, California’s regulators mandated that PCV valves be installed in every vehicle sold in California by 1963.

Following California’s lead, the state of New York mandated PCV valves in all new vehicles by 1964. Soon after, all automakers selling new cars in the U.S. voluntarily added PCV valves to their products. Amazingly, despite the clear benefit of PCV technology, the federal government didn’t mandate this particular device until 1968… five years after California.

Only twenty years after LA began building freeways, air pollution was a tremendous problem

The importance of this event can’t be understated, because this pattern was (and is) often the model for vehicle emissions regulations in the United States. Whenever the federal government struggles to find the political will to regulate the auto industry, the State of California sets a standard that the rest of the country quickly follows.

California Serves As a Model For The Rest of the USA

Much like the PCV mandate, California regulators all but turned the auto industry upside down in 1966 by setting tailpipe emission limits for hydrocarbon (HC) and carbon monoxide (CO) emissions. While these were the first significant tailpipe emissions rules in the United States, they were also the regulatory model of the future. By measuring emissions at the tailpipe – rather than in an automaker’s carefully controlled laboratory – California regulators ensured that automakers would have to design their systems to work as promised on every car sold.

As federal regulators finally began to implement rules that limited vehicle emissions, the CARB worked with the newly formed EPA to regulate amounts of NOx (nitrogen oxides), SOx (sulfur oxides), and particulate matter (soot) produced by vehicles, as well as further reduce the amount of carbon monoxide (CO) produced by vehicles. When the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, the CARB had played a vital role in forming vehicle emissions laws.

California Continues To Push Regulations Forward

California’s innovative policies continued in the 1980’s, with the advent of the nation’s first periodic “smog check” system. Before 1984, vehicle emissions systems were not checked for performance on a regular basis. Vehicle owners could intentionally disable their emissions control devices to improve vehicle performance without fear of consequence, as there was no mechanism to verify the presence of these systems or to test their performance.

After 1984, vehicle owners in California (and in other states that followed California’s regulations) couldn’t risk tampering with their emissions systems.

Beginning in the 1990’s, the CARB adopted a series of increasingly strict emissions requirements. Starting with Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) standards adopted in 1990, and culminating with Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) emissions rules that are still being adjusted, CARB has worked to reduce vehicle emissions to almost zero.

Anecdotally, it’s said that the air coming from a PZEV (partial zero emissions vehicle) tailpipe is cleaner than the “fresh” air found in many cities around the USA.

The CARB’s success in forcing national regulatory change hasn’t just effected federal regulators. Working in concert with regulators and researchers in California, the state of Washington recently enacted rules that will all but ban the use of copper and asbestos in vehicle brake pads. Studies have found that copper in brake pads eventually works its’ way into waterways, where it can effect the salmon population (see Auto Industry Will Brake for Salmon). By 2025, brake pads sold in Washington and California (and likely all pads offered across the U.S.) will no longer contain copper or asbestos (yes, believe it or not, some brake pads still contain asbestos).

The CARB Has Made An Incalculable Difference

While the CARB has endured criticism for occasionally over-reaching – most notably when the regulators attempted to limit greenhouse gas emissions (something that both the Obama administration and the court system both rejected) – there’s no denying the California Air Resource Board’s positive effect on vehicle emissions standards.

From mandating the first significant emissions control system to enacting the first tailpipe emissions rules in the United States to recently pressuring the Obama administration to enact stricter vehicle emissions regulations, the CARB’s impact has been felt far and wide. When you consider the fact that vehicles pollute far less today than they did when the California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board was established in 1959, the CARB’s legacy is impressive.

Author Jason Lancaster closely follows the North American auto industry, commenting on everything from emissions regulations to auto accessories and customizations. Jason works with Blue Springs Ford Parts, a website offering replacement OEM Ford parts.