Cars Are One Place High Tech Can Really Make a Difference

Back in the days of push-button AM radios . . . . A bit of history.

No doubt about it: life back in the Jurassic era of the automobile age was simpler. But AM radio got pretty boring, and engines spewed a lot more pollution. Cassette decks and then CD-players eventually arrived to deliver better on-board tunes, and government helped to improve the efficiency and cleanliness of car engines.

Figures in units of grams per vehicle-mile.


Here's the little dingie that's allowed us all to breathe easier.

When catalytic converters first appeared in the mid-1970s, they were a novelty. You had to tank up with unleaded fuel, and unleaded could be tricky to find. Gradually, however, all cars came with catalytic converters, and all gas was unleaded. Today, the catalytic converter is a nondescript piece of high-technology located somewhere between the engine and muffler. Be glad it's there. It's the workhorse of auto pollution control efforts.

Meet your cat: a Socratic dialogue.

Q. Where does the name "catalytic converter" come from?
A. A catalyst is like a bit of magic: it's a chemical that causes a reaction between two other chemicals, but not with itself. A car's catalytic converter has a chemical (on the interior honeycomb-like walls of the converter) that changes other chemicals in the engine exhaust from more harmful to less harmful gases. Poof! The not-as-bad stuff goes out the tailpipe.

Q. My dad talks about how great leaded gas was. Why can't we get leaded gas anymore?
A. Leaded gas was good for the engines of the time. The lead helped to lubricate the moving parts. But engine parts today are stronger and are coated with special metal. They don't need lead for extra lubrication. Lead was taken out of gas because lead can wreck a catalytic converter. Lead coats the chemicals in the converter, and the converter no longer works. One tank of leaded gas is all it takes to wreck a converter. And having less lead in the air is good from another perspective: lead causes brain damage, especially in young children. Just as paint no longer contains lead for health reasons, gas doesn't either.

Q. I'm going to disconnect the catalytic converter on my car. It'll run better, right?
A. Nope; your car won't run better. In fact, it'll probably run worse. Today's cars are engineered to run with all the pieces they came with. Removing one can create mega-trouble. More importantly, you'll become a major polluter overnight if you disconnect the catalytic converter. That's why IT'S AGAINST VERMONT AND FEDERAL LAW TO DISCONNECT, OR ASK A MECHANIC TO DISCONNECT, YOUR CAR'S CATALYTIC CONVERTER. PUNISHMENT FOR BREAKING THE LAW INCLUDES A FINE OF UP TO $2,500 FOR INDIVIDUALS AND UP TO $25,000 FOR MECHANICS.

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