Suppliers that develop catalytic converters and fuel-injection systems have been eagerly awaiting a greenlight to apply their new technologies in meeting the National Low Emission Vehicle standards.

Now, they get their chance. This fall, at the start of the 1999 model year, the major foreign and domestic automakers have announced plans to sell cars and trucks in the northeastern United States that are 70% cleaner than currently required. However, four of those states - Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont - will enforce the more stringent California LEV program.

By model year 2001, NLEV vehicles will be required nationwide. If the schedule is followed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that oxides of nitrogen will be reduced by 496 (449t) tons per day and non-methane organic gases will drop by 311 tons (282t) per day in 2007. The pollutants contribute to unhealthy levels of ozone.

Automakers already have made great strides in cleaning up emissions, and the next step to meet NLEV requirements is not a drastic one.

Merely placing the catalyst closer to the exhaust manifold goes a long way in reducing cold-start emissions. This trend toward "close-coupled" catalysts already is evident in several vehicles on the road today. Additional steps include larger catalysts and using more precious metals to convert exhaust gases more efficiently.

The announcement is good news for suppliers but does not come as a surprise. "It's a good step forward," says Bruce I. Bertelsen, executive director of the 33-member Manufacturers of Emission Controls Assn. "It would have been more of a surprise if it fell through."

But aren't suppliers and automakers presented with a logistical nightmare in producing and shipping different types of vehicles for different states?

Not really, says Jeff Moser, manager of marketing and business development at New Jersey-based Engelhard, which applies the chemical coatings on substrates. Cleaner vehicles already are being produced for California. "Now it's just a question of making more of those vehicles for the northeastern states," he says.

While suppliers are gearing up for larger volumes, they can't view this new business as a "windfall," says John J. Mooney, Engelhard's director of technical development and business programs. "That means you weren't trying to get there," he says. "We were trying to get there."

Emitec Inc., a joint venture between GKN Automotive AG and Siemens AG, makes metallic substrates at its Laurens County, SC, plant. The facility is expanding to double output to 3 million units. "And we are well prepared to do it again," says President Wolfgang Maus.

"This will be a job you have to do," Mr. Maus says of the new opportunities. "You cannot leave your customers in the dust."

His company has developed two products it hopes will meet the stricter emissions regulations of the future. One is a conical catalyst with two separate substrates designed for more equal distribution of exhaust gases. The second is an electrically heated catalyst, which converts cold-start emissions within 10 seconds.

Partsmakers aren't the only ones facing new opportunities in the push for cleaner engines.

Pierburg Instruments Inc., which recently opened a technical center in Auburn Hills, MI, supplies flow meters to measure fuel consumption and exhaust gases. The German-based company is seeing higher demand for them, as well as for its ULEV (Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) test cells and equipment that measures diesel emissions.

"The Big Three are calling us for this equipment," says President Peter Kaub. "We already do a lot of diesel testing in Germany." o

The Big Three have already committed to buying more from minority-owned suppliers. Now, they have a government incentive to step up those efforts. The automakers and the Clinton Administration signed an agreement to send nearly $3 billion more in annual business to minority suppliers by 2001. The car companies will get credit for subcontracting to minority businesses when the government considers bids for federal contracts, such as vehicles. The agreement allows automakers to count contracts with publicly traded minority firms as long as a minority controls the company and owns at least 10% of its stock. In the past, a minority had to own 51% of the company.