by Jim Kerr

Is there an LEV in your future? Probably. LEV is the acronym for Low Emission Vehicle, and if you think these vehicles are all small, low powered commuters, boy are you in for a surprise! Low emission vehicles range from small economy cars to full size pickup trucks.

So what is a Low Emission Vehicle? According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, A Low Emission Vehicle is one that emits at least 50% less smog forming emissions than the current government standards. Another more dramatic way of describing a LEV is that they reduce exhaust emissions by 99.3% of what came from a vehicle before standards were introduced!

By the 2004 model year, the large majority of cars, SUV’s and pickups will have to meet the LEV standards. Most automobile manufacturers are building a couple models that meet LEV standards, but Ford is leading the way. As of 1999, all Ford SUV’s and Windstar minivans meet the stringent Low Emission Vehicle standards. For the 2000 model year, the Ford full size pickups meet the LEV standards, and for the 2001 model year, all Ford cars as well as most Ford truck models will be LEV.

Jack Nasser
Jack Nasser, President of Ford Motor Co. standing in front of Ford’s truck lineup of Low Emission Vehicles.

According to Bobbie Gaunt, President of Ford of Canada, “we have publicly committed ourselves to this higher standard of corporate responsibility because we believe it is the right thing to do. Once we have the technology and can take an action in volume to ensure a significant, positive environmental impact, we will not wait for regulatory timetables. We will simply act”. Introducing LEV Ford vehicles in the 2000 model year, well in advance of government regulations, has the same effect as eliminating the equivalent of 92,400 non-LEV smog-producing cars and trucks from Canadian roads!

Blake Smith, Ford of Canada’s Director of environment, energy, and vehicle safety gave a dramatic real-life example of what this means to us every day: You could drive a LEV Ford sedan “a distance of over 200 kilometres and still produce fewer emissions than a typical 1970 sedan sitting on a street all day with its engine off”. The evaporative emissions of past generation vehicles are higher than the total emissions from a current Low Emission Vehicle.

Studies have shown that the buying public prefers to purchase “green” environmentally friendly products if they do not cost more than regular ones, and do not impact on their comfort or lifestyle. To accomplish this, the manufacturers have been working in three essential areas: Engine design, better emission control devices, and cleaner high quality fuels.

Low emission features
Engines have been refined in many ways to reduce vehicle emissions
click for larger image

Engine design is continually changing, mostly driven by the demand for better fuel economy and lower emissions. Small design changes such as improved valve stem seals prevent lubrication from entering the combustion chamber and exiting the exhaust. Moving the top piston ring higher on the piston helps reduce the crevices that unburned fuel can “hide” in and reduces hydrocarbon emissions. Improved cylinder bore geometry stability allows the piston rings to seal better and prevents oil from entering the combustion chamber. New fuel injectors give more consistent fuel spray patterns allowing for more complete combustion of the fuel. These are but a few of the improvements that help to produce a LEV engine.

Emission controls include better vehicle computers that control ignition spark timing more precisely, and provide more accurate fuel control. While electronics has played an important part in LEV emission controls, the catalytic converter has done just as important job. Unseen and often forgotten beneath the car, the catalytic converter has been called the single most important pollution control advancement on vehicles. Today, three-way converters that better control hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen emissions have replaced older single bed converters.

Recently, some manufacturers have redesigned converters to optimize the percentage of rare metals that act as the catalyst to break up the harmful emissions. Better exhaust system design allows the converter to warm up faster so that it can start working sooner. Some car models even incorporate an electric heater in the converter to preheat the catalyst so it will start to work almost as soon as the car is started! All this to reduce the exhaust emissions of today’s vehicles.

The final area of development in emissions reduction is in the area of fuels. Cleaner cars and trucks need cleaner fuels to allow the emission controls to work properly. Several of Canada’s automobile manufacturers have joined forces to set recommendations for the type of fuel needed to keep emissions levels low. The fuel is very low in sulphur content and fuel companies selling this fuel can receive the “Auto Makers’ Choice” endorsement. Currently, only one oil company in Canada, Irving Oil, produces gasoline that meets the “Auto Makers’ Choice” low sulphur specifications. Sold mainly in the Atlantic Provinces, this fuel reduces the degradation of catalytic converters, oxygen sensors, and other emission devices due to sulphur contamination. Drivers in other parts of the country will have to wait for the other oil companies to produce low sulphur fuel before they too can operate their vehicles on “Auto Maker’s Choice” gasoline.

Low Emission Vehicles are a part of our future. My experience with LEV’s has shown them to drive and perform as well as those that do not meet LEV standards. Just think, if everyone was driving a LEV rated vehicle, the benefits to our environment, and in turn, our health would be tremendous.

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