Here at ECS Tuning, we’re all car enthusiasts. From producing and distributing some of the highest-quality performance, OEM, and aftermarket parts to creating unique content, sweepstakes, and participating in the European car scene, we love what we do. That means we have an opportunity to be a leader in our industry and enthusiast community when it comes to practices and behavior. That’s why today we’re talking about a sore subject in the car world and explaining everything you need to know about the California Air Resource Board and what it means to be a modern car enthusiast. 

Where it Began

Pollution smog

Without regulations, it would be much more difficult to enjoy what we do. Let’s take a step back and look at the mid-20th century: carbon emissions and air pollution were reaching unprecedented levels. Cities were constantly shrouded by smog produced by manufacturing plants, coal-fired power plants, and even personal transportation. Until Dr. Clair Patterson, a Geochemist was tasked with determining the age of some interstellar materials, we were even polluting our air with lead!

 How are the two related? Dr. Patterson consistently found unusually high concentrations of lead in his experiments in the readouts from his mass spectrometer. He, like all scientists at the time, was under the impression that the levels of lead in the atmosphere and his research facility were normal. However, as he began the creation of the world’s first cleanroom, he found that the lead in our atmosphere was far from normal. The levels of lead were much, much higher than could remotely be considered safe.

Through research trips to the Arctic and ice-core drilling, he was able to determine that the levels of lead thought to be normal during the 1930s and 40s were extremely high, and they began showing up in that concentration around the time that automobiles became popular. In his investigation, he found that lead, added to gasoline as an anti-knock agent, was what caused those extremely high levels in the atmosphere. We don’t need to tell you how toxic lead is, especially when burned, vaporized, and inhaled by humans. While it took years, resulted in personal threats to Dr. Patterson and his family, the loss of his funding at CalTech, and a lengthy process through the courts, we have Dr. Clair Patterson to thank for the removal of lead in our gasoline and a much cleaner atmosphere here in the 21st century.

Catalytic Converters

After Dr. Patterson’s successful fight against the oil industry and the removal of lead from our gasoline, smog became an increasing concern, especially in California. This time, a French mechanical engineer by the name of Eugene Houdry, took his expertise in catalytic oil refining and applied it to large scale manufacturing here in America. He created the first catalytic converters for smokestacks and later for implement equipment, like forklifts, that still used low-grade, unleaded, gasoline. 

Dr. Houdry holding an early prototype of his Catalytic Converter. Image courtesy

This invention took some time to gain widespread use, but by the 1970s, catalytic converters were equipped to vehicles, which reduced nitrogen and carbon emissions at the tailpipe. Of course, this early catalytic converter technology is what choked the high-performance engines of the 1960s, ended the muscle car era, and has been the bane of enthusiasts ever since. Or, at least that’s what some uninformed members of the car community would have you believe.

In reality, the technology behind catalytic converters have improved to the point that they are nearly negligible in terms of restrictions or performance subtractions, but still offer the benefits of scrubbing the exhaust gasses of harmful pollutants. In modern vehicles, we have cars that produce power and torque much greater than their ancestors from much smaller, more efficient, and less environmentally-detrimental packages. This brings us to performance parts, specifically, high-flow catalytic converters, exhaust systems, and the California Air Resource Board. 

What is CARB? 

The California Air Resource Board, or CARB, is an organization that develops programs and actions to help fight climate change. They oversee requirements for clean cars, fuels, and implement creative solutions to greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Taken from their mission statement: 

“CARB’s mission is to promote and protect public health, welfare, and ecological resources through effective reduction of air pollutants while recognizing and considering effects on the economy. CARB is the lead agency for climate change programs and oversees all air pollution control efforts in California to attain and maintain health-based air quality standards.”

California Air Resource Board, 2020

CARB sets the standards that all automotive manufacturers and replacement/performance parts manufacturers must follow to sell their products in California. Several states, including Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont, have adopted several of the CARB requirements and are following in California’s footsteps quickly. But how does that affect us, the people who use our cars for more than transportation, find intrinsic value in them, and modify them to our liking?

What Does This Mean For Enthusiasts?

As we know, most performance parts and aftermarket replacement parts have little to no effect on overall vehicle emissions. However, parts like Catalytic Converters, Intakes, Exhaust Systems, and even the ECU software can and do affect carbon emissions. With air cleanliness in mind, all systems that affect vehicle emissions must be tested and approved for legal street use in California and CARB/ZEV states. With more states adopting California’s programs, and to make sure we have a clean, healthy future in which to enjoy our beloved hobby, it is in our best interest that we, as enthusiasts, follow the strictest standards. 

So, performance parts like high-flow cats, catless exhaust systems, emissions-defeating software tunes, and similar upgrades are not available at ECS Tuning. The alternative, where we ignore these regulations, is a future where the people who enjoy cars aren’t able to enjoy them at all. Let’s be real; the performance difference between a catless exhaust and one with a CARB-approved exhaust system for street use is effectively zero. CARB regulations ensure we can all take part in a hobby that has no downsides for years to come.

Moving forward, ECS Tuning is working to receive CARB certifications on all required performance parts and will only offer upgrade solutions that are in-line with CARB regulations. You’ll still be able to modify, race, and drive your performance Audi, BMW, MINI, Porsche, or Volkswagen to the fullest of your ability, you’ll just know that you’re doing so in a safe and environmentally-conscious way. Look at the California car scene. It’s arguably one of the largest in the world and sets many trends we on the East Coast emulate. If they can create some of the most recognizable and incredible builds while still following CARB regulations and still have the fun in their hobby to the degree that they do, so too can we all.

Rather than look at California as an extreme example, we should look to them as the future of automotive enthusiasm. Their practices will help preserve our hobby and prevent those who are outside of car culture from perceiving us as a road-block to environmentalism or using us as an example that justifies their actions to resist these improvements.

In Closing

Dr. Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article of Science magazine composed an allegory entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In this article, he created a thought exercise for readers where a group of shepherds grazed their flocks in a shared pasture. The pasture supported all the equally sized herds and the shepherds were able to sustain themselves indefinitely through proper self-regulation. However, when one shepherd decided to increase the size of his flock for personal gain, the pasture began to destabilize. With the mentality that ‘well, if I don’t grow my flock and improve my output, someone else will,’ the shared resources are drained and the pasture can no longer sustain any flocks. The group fails, the cattle die, and the pasture is left barren. 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Breakdown (2017) United States EPA

This same attitude is what we follow as enthusiasts. Since 29% of greenhouse gas emissions are already attributed to personal transportation, it is our responsibility to be a part of the solution, not use the actions of others to justify unsustainable practices. No, one car that does not adhere to emissions regulations is not going to create an unsustainable future. However, if everyone were to have that mentality, we would be in a similar situation as we were in the 1930s with leaded gasoline and un-catalyzed exhaust gasses. By taking responsibility and enjoying our hobby through a sustainable lens, we become leaders and set the standards for conscious automotive enthusiasm. Let us be the example to follow and a positive influence in automotive culture. If we hold onto the past, we will lose the future. If we embrace progress, we will reap the rewards of our creativity.

Craig Daugherty, M.S. Environmental Science and Renewable Energy