Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution and Control Act, authorizing the federal government to create standards to control emissions from cars, beginning with the 1968 model year. These emissions standards would have major effects on the design and manufacture of new automobiles, driving some types of innovation and foreclosing others.

Summary of Event

Air pollution existed as a byproduct of industrialization as early as the nineteenth century, in London. The term “smog” was coined to describe the combination of coal smoke and fog that periodically blanketed London. Somewhat inaccurately, the term began to be used in the United States in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s to describe a new kind of air pollution in the Los Angeles basin, a brownish, hazy, and eye-irritating atmospheric phenomenon resulting in large part from photochemical reactions to vehicular emissions. For a long time, smog was considered to be a peculiarity of Southern California, with its legendary dependence on the private automobile and a topography and weather patterns conducive to atmospheric pollution. Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act (1965) Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution Pollution;legislation Automobile emissions Smog [kw]Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act (Oct. 20, 1965) [kw]Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, Congress Passes the (Oct. 20, 1965) [kw]Air Pollution Control Act, Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle (Oct. 20, 1965) [kw]Pollution Control Act, Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air (Oct. 20, 1965) [kw]Act, Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control (Oct. 20, 1965) Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act (1965) Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution Pollution;legislation Automobile emissions Smog [g]North America;Oct. 20, 1965: Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act[08600] [g]United States;Oct. 20, 1965: Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act[08600] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 20, 1965: Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act[08600] [c]Transportation;Oct. 20, 1965: Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act[08600] [c]Environmental issues;Oct. 20, 1965: Congress Passes the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act[08600] Haagen-Smit, A. J. Hahn, Kenneth Muskie, Edmund Nader, Ralph

A. J. Haagen-Smit, a professor of biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, was a member of the scientific committee of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Increasing numbers of complaints came to the chamber from local farmers who protested the increasing and unusual damage to their crops. His initial findings indicated that the area’s smog was not caused by the kinds of gases emitted by industrial operations. His continued investigations in the early 1950’s began to point to motor vehicles as the primary source of Los Angeles’s pollution. He found that automobiles emit pollutants in the following three ways: exhaust through the tailpipe includes carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and hydrocarbons; evaporation from both the carburetor and gas tank contributes hydrocarbons; and “blowby” of hydrocarbons and particulates from the pistons to the crankcase puts these pollutants into the air.

As air quality continued to worsen, the County of Los Angeles set up the Air Pollution Control District Air Pollution Control District, Los Angeles County Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District , which had the power to declare “smog alerts” that were supposed to immediately result in decreased burning, restrictions in emissions from factory or refinery smokestacks, and decreased physical activity on the part of schoolchildren. All “nonessential” motor vehicle traffic was supposed to cease, but this regulation proved almost impossible to enforce on the increasingly clogged Los Angeles freeways.

Cars approach the smog-obscured skyline of downtown Birmingham, Alabama, in 1972.

(National Archives)

In correspondence with the chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as late as 1953, key automobile industry spokespersons seemed unwilling to concede the close connection between motor vehicle emissions and photochemical air pollution. It became increasingly difficult, however, to refute the growing evidence of this connection. The automobile companies began to concede that motor vehicles were a major factor in producing smog in Los Angeles but questioned whether that type of pollution could exist elsewhere in the country. Research in various locations, funded by the federal government beginning in 1955, provided good evidence that photochemical air pollution was not confined to Los Angeles. The surgeon general was directed to conduct studies of the physical damage caused by smog, but no other action occurred immediately at the federal level.

Meanwhile, the problem became a major public policy issue in California. Not satisfied with the slow response from Washington, the increasingly powerful Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District pushed the California legislature to create a Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board, California California Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board in 1960. It had the power to certify smog control technology and require its installation in new vehicles. The major automobile manufacturers by then had developed a positive crankcase ventilation device, which was to recycle blowby air back into the cylinder.

California required the ventilation device to be installed in cars beginning in the 1961 model year. Increasing evidence from studies undertaken in California indicated that a significant reduction of air pollution, particularly hydrocarbon emissions, would depend on widespread adoption and usage of exhaust emission devices. Under continuing pressure from California, the largest single-state market for new cars, manufacturers promised to have exhaust devices ready by the 1967 model year.

Recognition of air pollution caused by automobiles spread nationwide. In 1962, Congress approved the first of a series of laws that, over the next eight years, moved the federal government into a leadership position in antipollution efforts. This legislation directed the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;pollution (HEW) to develop air quality criteria and to begin planning for investigative and abatement functions like those already in effect for water pollution. Guidelines developed by HEW remained advisory; state and local governments could choose whether to follow them. The 1962 act also directed HEW to encourage the automobile industry to develop devices to help control emissions of pollutants.

HEW’s 1964 report Steps Toward Clean Air Steps Toward Clean Air (government report) suggested that the growing air pollution problem would not be solved until there were national standards for vehicular emissions. This report attracted the attention of politicians such as Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, who was named chairman of the new Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution . Appropriately, that subcommittee’s first public hearing was held in Los Angeles, in January of 1964.

Governor Edmund G. Brown Brown, Edmund G., Sr. , Sr., of California testified before the subcommittee that the continued enormous growth in the numbers of motor vehicles on his state’s roads meant that the problem could not be brought under control until the federal government used the interstate commerce clause to regulate emissions in newly manufactured cars. On the basis of these hearings, the subcommittee’s report concluded that automobile exhaust was “the most important and critical source of air pollution and it is, beyond question, increasing in seriousness.”

Also in 1964, HEW issued a report documenting that automotive emissions posed a serious threat to physical health. Although automobile manufacturers claimed that they were working as fast as possible to upgrade abatement technology, they recognized the political reality that federal legislation was inevitable. They offered to drop their strong opposition to mandated exhaust standards in return for a two-year lead time and uniform nationwide (rather than diverse state) standards for exhaust manifold devices.

The result of this heightened public awareness and political pressure was the passage on October 20, 1965, of the federal Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act. Section 202 required the secretary of HEW to set emission standards, which would require that new vehicles achieve prescribed performance standards. Manufacturers could choose the most attractive technical means of reaching the standards, which were set by HEW in 1966 to be applicable nationwide in the 1968 model year. These regulations dealt primarily with carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, under standards similar to the ones earlier mandated by California. Section 203 specified the ways in which manufacturers could apply for a certificate of compliance based on their prototype (rather than production line) vehicles.


The automobile industry was concerned about this vast new area of government regulation. However, critics of industry, such as Ralph Nader, complained that the legislation was too loose and would lead to lax enforcement of standards. As a result of these criticisms, Congress in 1967 passed even tougher federal standards under the Air Quality Act Air Quality Act (1967) . This piece of legislation mandated that federal emission standards for new vehicles were binding in all states except California. This cleared up a controversy as to whether the 1965 legislation permitted more stringent standards for individual states. California was now explicitly permitted to adopt, under certain circumstances, more stringent standards to meet its special needs.

After 1967, vehicular pollution control policy, even in California, became more influenced by the federal government. This was especially true after the Clean Air Act Extension Clean Air Act Extension (1970) of 1970 set up uniform air quality standards for the nation and also mandated controls to eliminate gasoline evaporation. This piece of legislation would soon be enforced by the powerful new Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which set standards directed at controlling nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, lead, and particulate matter as well as hydrocarbons. This policy ultimately impelled the use of such control devices as catalytic converters and electronic carburetors on vehicles to control all these pollutants.

Such new governmental controls affected other major industries as well. As one example, the Clean Air Act Clean Air Act (1963) caused the EPA to encourage catalytic converter technology to control motor vehicle exhaust emissions. These converters required usage of unleaded gasoline, which requires much more intensive processing by refiners than does leaded gasoline.

Although the Clean Air Act had originally “required” America’s air to be clean by 1975, this soon proved impossible. The act was amended several times in later years. In addition, as automobile manufacturers pointed out, there never was an explicit and scientifically agreed upon standard as to what constitutes “clean air.” Nevertheless, much evidence indicates that progress was made in cleaning up the nation’s air in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

The 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act Clean Air Act Amendments (1977) made it more difficult to achieve new fuel conservation standards, as cleaner technology was not as fuel efficient. The largest American automobile producer, General Motors, estimated in a public interest report issued in the late 1970’s that the new emissions control equipment would add more than $200 to the cost of each vehicle. Furthermore, at the same time new vehicular safety features such as mandatory seatbelts added hundreds of dollars more to the price tag. Because of these high costs and, particularly in the early years, negative effects on automobile performance, emissions regulation was always controversial with the public as well as with manufacturers.

In retrospect, questions should be raised about the price paid for emissions reduction on a set of rather stringent deadlines. Congress may have acted precipitately in constructing a program with tight deadlines and extremely ambitious goals. Congress had little information or theory on the effects of automobile pollution on human health. Blaming a combination of stringent standards and tight deadlines for jerry-built technologies, especially for the 1974 model year, the report cited higher costs and automobiles that suffered from less reliability and fuel efficiency as results of regulation.

These negative effects of greater government controls occurred at a time of increasing competition from foreign automobile producers. Because of antitrust laws, American manufacturers were not allowed to cooperate in developing new technology for emissions control. In contrast, Japanese manufacturers were able to share research and development costs for an excellent emission control system, saving money for each company and making each more competitive in the American market.

The enactment of federal regulations on automobile emissions during the 1960’s and 1970’s was a manifestation of the government’s perceived mandate to regulate that followed the Great Society era. Before 1965, the American automobile industry was subject to relatively little regulation of either its product or its manufacturing processes. Safety regulations, energy efficiency standards, and pollution regulations markedly changed this within a few years following 1965. Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act (1965) Environmental policy, U.S.;air pollution Pollution;legislation Automobile emissions Smog

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crandall, Robert W., Howard K. Gruenspecht, Theodore E. Keeler, and Lester B. Lave. Regulating the Automobile. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1986. This study provides analysis of the economic impact of three major types of federal regulation of the automobile. In particular, it points out the conflicting goals of each of the three programs (fuel economy, safety, and emission standards), which operated independently of one another.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dewey, Scott Hamilton. Don’t Breathe the Air: Air Pollution and U.S. Environmental Politics, 1945-1970. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000. Addresses U.S. political battles against air pollution both nationally and in specific locales, such as New York City and rural Florida. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Harold W., and Martin E. Weekes. “Control of Automobile Emissions: California Experience and the Federal Legislation.” Law and Contemporary Problems 33 (Spring, 1968): 297-314. Details the growth of political pressure in the 1950’s from Southern California constituents on Congress to adopt federal legislation regarding motor vehicle pollution control.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lees, Lester. Smog: A Report to the People. Pasadena: California Institute of Technology, 1972. A landmark multidisciplinary study concerning air pollution in Southern California. Provides outstanding historical data on growth of the smog problem and development of alternative strategies to comply with the Clean Air Act in Southern California.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rae, John B. The American Automobile Industry. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An outstanding interpretive history. Chapter 11, “The Government and the Automobile Industry,” illuminates the critical combination of air pollution, automobile safety, and fuel efficiency regulation and how these had major effects on the financial and operating aspects of the automobile business.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Lawrence J. The Automobile Industry Since 1945. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. A scholarly study focusing on the economic aspects of the industry and how these were affected by both antipollution and safety legislation in the 1960’s. Discusses possible future technological breakthroughs but expresses doubt (which the passage of time has supported) that automobiles powered by the internal combustion engine will soon have major competition for transportation of individuals.

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