To the relief of automotive paint suppliers and auto makers, the California Air Resources Board has announced it is shelving for now its controversial plan to mandate the phase-in of heat-reflecting paints.

The regulation would have required use of the new paints on vehicles beginning with the ’12 model year, with all colors meeting a 20% reflectivity requirement by ’16.

The CARB measure was aimed at reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and improving fuel economy by keeping vehicles cooler on sunny days and decreasing the amount of time drivers use air conditioners. However, sources at automotive paint and pigment suppliers tell Ward’s the proposed rules are impossible to meet.

Interviews with industry sources lead to a Ward’s commentary criticizing the regulatory initiative as an “ill-informed boondoggle,” because it was drafted without adequate research on what is technologically feasible.

For instance, California rule makers were unaware that paint colors are locked into vehicle-development cycles three years in advance, and new paint formulations must undergo two years of testing before they can be specified.

They also didn’t know the heat-reflecting coatings currently used successfully for buildings cannot be used for vehicles because the products and manufacturing methods are very different. In fact, CARB tried to specify paints that have not been invented yet, a fact it later acknowledged when it announced in late March it was deferring cool-paint regulations.

Because it was impossible to offer darker paint colors capable of meeting CARB’s 20% heat-reflectivity goals by the ’16 model year, in part because darker hues naturally absorb more heat, suppliers say California was in effect creating a de facto ban on black and dark-colored vehicles.

The Ward’s commentary was posted online March 24 and created a furor as bloggers, who have no patience for nuance, declared California was drafting laws to ban black cars outright. The uproar culminated two days later with radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh reading part of the Ward’s commentary on-air and adding his own spin that “tyrants” in California “want to ban black cars.”

Shortly after the frenzy peaked, CARB announced it was revising its draft regulatory language for vehicle solar requirements to include only specifications for vehicle glazing (windows), but not paint.

CARB said it was making the change based on input from the auto industry, paint and pigment suppliers at a March 12 public workshop on the topic, and not media pressure.

CARB officials also emphasized banning black or any other paint color was never the intent.

San Diego Union-Tribune editorial writer Chris Reed, wrote that even though banning black paint never was the intent of the cool-paints initiative, it would have been the result.

“The air board’s claim that the idea it might ban black paint was ‘completely fallacious’ – in the words of an air board spokesman – or an ‘unfounded rumor’ – in the words of CARB chief Mary Nichols is pure and utter spin,” Reed writes in an April 3 editorial.

In a follow-up interview with Ward’s, Connie Poulsen, global director-product management, PPG Industries Inc., says she is relieved some of the chemists and research scientists assigned to looking for a solution to CARB’s mandate now can be freed to pursue other work.

However, she says research will continue on heat-reflecting paints, as CARB is expected to revisit the issue in several years. With more time to develop a solution, other technology paths can be explored that may prove more fruitful.

Meanwhile, CARB still wants to mandate heat-reflecting glass in vehicles, but Mukesh Rustagi, director-Strategic Product Management, Pittsburgh Glass Works Inc., a major automotive glass supplier, says the technology to meet that requirement is available and already in use on a number of vehicles in Europe.

It is a special coating sandwiched between the outer layer of glass and the middle layer of plastic incorporated in all windshields. CARB actually has backed off on its mandate for heat-reflecting rear-window and side glass, because regulators were informed by auto engineers that the thicker glass would add vehicle weight and defeat the fuel-saving benefit.

Rustagi declines to estimate how much the new windshields will add to vehicle cost, but says consumers will see a noticeable difference in the coolness of their vehicles. And the heat-reflecting windshields will save fuel, with industry estimates ranging from five to 11 gallons (19- to 42 L) per year.

dwinter@wardsauto.com