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The “49-State” Motorcycle Might Become a Thing of the Past

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The Trump administration is about to take on the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in a battle for the rights to set emission standards.

The first blows in this showdown have already begun, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) sending a letter to the CARB saying that the organization had violated federal law by making an agreement with several automobile manufacturers on higher emission standards

The Trump administration doesn’t seem to end things there though, with the expectation the President will announce plans as early as today to do away with California’s emissions waiver from the Clean Air Act.

While it seems like politics as usual and centered around the auto industry, such a move will have huge implications for motorcycle manufacturers.


A Primer on the Clean Air Act

For a bit of background, the Clean Air Act of 1963 was a pivotal piece of legislature to control pollution in the United States at the national level.

Amongst its many provisions, the Clean Air Act sets out that no state can set stricter emission standards than what is mandated by the EPA, in an effort to create one standard set of regulations.

However, the Clean Air Act also granted California (and any other state that applied) a special waiver to set its own higher standards for automobile emissions. This waiver was established because of the daunting smog problems that California was facing during the time that the Clean Air Act was being created.

Going forward, 13 states would eventually sign onto California’s stricter emission standards, which for a while created a dual set of regulations for cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Though now, the emissions standards set by CARB  have become the de facto regulations of the land.


California’s New Deal and Trump’s Next Move

Moving the clock several decades ahead, we see two conflicting forces. The Trump administration through the EPA is trying to rollback vehicle emission and fuel efficiency standards in order to lower the costs of vehicles, while CARB is trying to create even stricter emission standards in order to combat global warming.

With these two goals are clearly at odds with each other, we shouldn’t be surprised that we are seeing California and President Trump clashing on the issue.

The precipitating move here is California’s agreement with four automobile makers (BMW, Ford, Honda, & Volkswagen) to adhere to the state’s new emission goals.

Not wanting to see more division in industry, and perhaps more importantly, not wanting to see the role of the EPA usurped by CARB, the Trump administration directed California that it was breaking federal law, and it warned the companies involved that they were violate anti-trust laws on collusion.

All of this has taken us to where we are today, with the Trump Administration threatening to end California’s waiver to the Clean Air Act altogether.


E Pluribus Unum

At the core of the debate is roughly one-third of the automotive market in the United States, with vehicle emissions being the single largest cause of greenhouse gases in the country.

Perhaps not an innocent bystander in all of this is the motorcycle industry, which for a long time saw its manufacturers choosing to build two versions of its products for the United States: a “California” model, and a “49-state” model.

But, as more states began to follow California’s lead on vehicle emissions, we have already begun to see a unifying emissions standard for 50-state motorcycles.

Helping fuel that move has been the actions across the pond, with the European Union setting increasingly stricter standards for motorcycles, first with the Euro4 standard, and now with the first part of the Euro5 standard, which takes affect on new models for the 2020 model year, and existing models for the 2021 model year.

With the European Union and Japan creating the JEFTA agreement, which eliminates trade barriers and emission differences for motorcycle imports, a single unifying emission standard for the major developed markets is starting form worldwide.

Because of the global nature of the motorcycle industry, the United States is not immune to the consequences of these regulatory actions occurring abroad.


What Will Come

The schism between California and the Trump administration will surely land itself in a federal court in the coming months, and at the core of the issue will be whether California’s actions rise to the high-standard of being “arbitrary and capricious” in manner, or if CARB’s standards don’t address “compelling and extraordinary conditions.”

My legal $0.02 would be that the Trump administration has a tough case to prove when it comes to revoking California’s waiver from the Clean Air Act, and the federal government’s move doesn’t seem to have a tremendous amount of support from the auto manufacturers it most directly affects.

To my eye, it is interesting that three of the brands that CARB negotiated new emissions standards with are brands that have ties to the motorcycle industry.

One thing I do know going forward is that the days of bifurcated model lineups, with one set of bikes built for the Californian market, and another set for the rest of the country will be behind us (one could argue that they already are).

But at the end of this political row, we will certainly have one unifying emission standard in the United States. The question is whether it will be set by the US government, or if a stricter de facto standard will be dictated by California and other foreign powers. Time will tell.

Source: NY Times, Ars Technica, & EPA

Jensen Beeler

Despite his best efforts, Jensen is called one of the most influential bloggers in the motorcycle industry, and sometimes consults for motorcycle companies, whether they've solicited his expertise or not.

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