Emissions standards will make motorcycles greener in 2010

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 4:15 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Brenda and Tim Norton sit on a motorcycle at Mid-Missouri Harley Davidson on Saturday. The Norton's have a Road King at home but wanted to check out a new bike. The Environmental Protection Agency is increasing emissions standards for motorcycle engines 280cc and above for 2010, which also affects some dirt bikes and scooters.

COLUMBIA — Exactly how environmentally friendly that motorcycle or scooter you're riding really is comes down to a number of factors: where it was built, when it was built and how big its engine is.

Motor vehicle pollution breakdown

Before current motorcycles emissions standards, which were implemented in 2006, the last emissions standards for motorcycles were set in 1978, according to the EPA.

When combined, motorcycles and cars contributed more than 50 percent of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States in 1999, according to the EPA.

The major changes to take place in 2010 are the reduction of hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide emissions from 1.4 g/km to 0.8 g/km, according to the report, but maintain carbon monoxide emissions levels at 12.0 g/km.

Reactions involving hydrocarbons and nitrogen dioxide in the presence of sunlight are precursors to ground-level ozone, according to the EPA, which is a key component of smog. They include many toxic compounds that cause cancer and other health problems.

Carbon monoxide emissions are higher in areas where conditions for combustion are poor, such as very cold weather or high elevation where there is less oxygen.

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Starting next year when new Environmental Protection Agency guidelines on motorcycle emissions come into effect, some of that variation will disappear, and all new, street-legal two- and three-wheelers will be greener. The new rules will apply to any motor vehicle — including some dirt bikes and scooters — built or sold in the U.S. next year and beyond with:

  • A headlight, taillight and brake light.
  • Two or three wheels.
  • A weight (curb mass) of 1,749 pounds or less.
  • An engine size of 280 cubic centimeters and above.

While some motorcycles emit less carbon dioxide, a 2005 EPA report shows that even after the 2010 emissions standards are implemented, they will still emit more hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide per mile than large SUVs and cars.

There are far more SUVs and cars on the road than motorcycles, however, and as a result cars produce more harmful emissions overall.

In Missouri, there were 85,000 motorcycle registrations in 2006, compared to 2.7 million automobiles, 4,000 buses and 2,212,000 trucks, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

According to a 2002 EPA report, highway motorcycles accounted for about 1.1 percent of mobile-source hydrocarbon emissions, 0.4 percent of carbon monoxide emissions, 0.1 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 0.1 percent of particulate matter emissions.

The 2010 emissions standards will still drastically reduce pollutants emitted by motorcycles; the 2005 EPA report projects a 50 percent reduction.

The new rules mean changes for motorcycle and scooter manufacturers that come with a bigger price tag. According to a 2003 EPA report, the average estimated cost per highway motorcycle to meet the 2010 standards is $45, which is likely to be passed along to consumers. At the same time, motorcyclists are likely to save money at the pump as the new technology brings with it better fuel efficiency.

For many in the motorcycle industry, emissions standards are nothing new. Current motorcycle emissions standards were implemented in 2006, and next year's regulations have been publicized since at least 2003. 

Steve Tuchschmidt Jr., owner of  the Vespa scooter store in downtown Columbia, said emissions standards have been a part of the scooter world for a long time, and the EPA isn't finding the need to twist the manufacturer's arm.

"Everybody saw this coming now for 10 years or something like that," Tuchschmidt said. "Everybody's been working on developing a new and more efficient motor that pollutes less, gets better gas mileage. ... That's what a lot of these companies are all about, is just innovation towards a more greener, more eco-friendly product."

Vespa, a European scooter company, meets Euro 3 emissions standards, according to Vespa sales representative Tristan Sharp. Those standards allow less pollution than what the EPA seeks to implement in 2010.

Building for pollution control

The more stringent EPA standards won't affect existing motorcycles. The emissions limits will only apply to motorcycles and scooters manufactured after the effective date.

The 2010 emissions standards are meant to reduce some major pollution culprits: hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon monoxide emitted from motorcycles during combustion, incomplete fuel combustion and fuel evaporation, according to the report.

Richard Ralston, former service writer for Mid-America Harley Davidson in Columbia, has watched motorcycles gradually merge into the list of emissions-regulated vehicles.

"They seem to have gotten a lot stricter on them," he said. "Harley is restricted by their (EPA's) guidelines on what kind of exhaust they can put out."

This is especially true, Ralston said, of EPA regulations for motorcycles in California, where he used to live. 

"You take the West Coast, California, I'm pretty sure every motorcycle out there's got a catalytic converter on it," he said.

Catalytic converters are pollution control devices that reduce nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, according to the California EPA Air Resources Board, and have been a requirement for all new motor vehicles sold in California since 1979.

In 2004, California enacted legislation similar to what the EPA is requiring of motorcycle producers for 2010. Catalytic converters will have a hand in reducing emissions in the new standards.

"We already have the 2010 models coming in, and they all have the catalytic converters on them," said Steve Tuchschmidt Sr., owner of Mid-America Harley Davidson. "That's new."

Increased use of technologies demonstrated as effective in four-stroke motorcycle engines, such as the catalytic converters, secondary air injection and electronic fuel inject systems, are expected to decrease harmful emissions, according to the 2003 report. 

The report also reads, however, that the standards will not result in universal use of catalytic converters.

Evolution of engines

Tuchschmidt Jr. said he has seen a gradual shift in the way motorcycles are built as a result of emissions standards.

"It started in California and pretty much spread across the United States," he said. "I actually grew up riding dirt bikes, and so riding two-strokes as a child affected me because I saw the whole motorcycle industry go from a two-stroke industry to a four-stroke industry."

The two-stroke engine was once so prevalent, Tuchschmidt Jr. said, that when he first heard rumors of emissions standards years ago, he thought it was a hoax. Now, he said, the new technology is improving.

"They're actually making a four-stroke motor that is every bit as efficient as the two-strokes were," Tuchschmidt Jr. said.

Beyond efficiency and performance, Ralston added, the four-stroke burns fuel cleaner than the two-stroke, which is why it appeals to the EPA.

"A two-stroke (engine) has got oil in the fuel, and with that you're going to get ... a smoke screen," he said. "When you throttle this thing up it's going to belch out smoke. A four-stroke, about the only time you see (exhaust) is if it's running too rich or something, you may see a little puff of black smoke. I think it would burn a lot cleaner."

So although the EPA protects the quality of life in the environment and motorcycle manufacturers protect the quality of a lifestyle, both seem to have successfully arrived at middle-of-the-road solutions.

"When I ride, it's like medicine for the head," Ralston said. "After a day's hectic schedule or whatever, I just get on the bike and ride and within a few miles ... all of that stuff's gone. Now I'm just having fun and riding."

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