When cable TV’s “MythBusters” program recently investigated the idea that emissions from motorcycles are gentler on the environment than emissions from cars, they burst the bubbles of eco-enthusiast motorcycle riders—and put a small New York company’s innovative emissions testing technology into the spotlight.
Since the “Bike vs. Car” episode of the popular sci-tech show first aired on September 28, “We have had an increase in queries about services, requests for interviews, job-seekers, and inventors that have the latest gizmo and widget that will save the world,” says David Munro, CEO of Long Island-based Global MRV,.
The company supplied the Discovery Channel series with its signature lightweight “portable emissions testing systems,” or PEMS, as well as scientific and technical consulting to set up the equipment in the field, and crunch the results.
Global MRV (“Measure, Report, and Verify”) has also experienced “a significant increase in approval and respect for the use of PEMS to solve these types of problems,” he says.
“Our nearest competitors [emissions testing equipment] weigh 280-300 pounds,” says Munro. “Our units weigh about 11-38 pounds, depending upon the unit. This means they’re truly portable, and can measure emissions in a roving vehicle” instead of being chained to artificial performance scenarios in a testing laboratory.
“That’s the breakthrough,” Munro says. “When you take our equipment and put it on a real vehicle with a real duty cycle, you see a real picture of how that vehicle performs.”
Smog in New York City
To test whether motorcycles are less polluting than cars thanks to smaller size and greater fuel efficiency, MythBusters first selected six three automobile-cycle pairs representative of popular models from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
Show hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman then took out each pair for simultaneous 30-minute cruises on the Bay Area’s city streets (for a quarter of the total drive time) and freeways (for three-quarters).
Both vehicles were equipped with Global MRV’s portable emissions testing systems, which collected 24 distinct points of data via a probe inserted into the tailpipe, as well as electronics (packed into a hard-shell case roughly the size of a bulky briefcase) connected to the vehicle’s engine, gauges, and onboard computer.
The PEMS took measurements continuously during the drive time, rather than only sampling emissions intermittently.
When the crunching on the 24 distinct points of data collected by the PEMS was completed, motorcycles did prove to use less fuel per mile than the cars, and therefore also created substantially less carbon dioxide: 43 percent less for the 1980s pair, 15 percent less for the 1990s duo, and 30 percent less for the 2000s vehicles.
But from there onward, there was no joy for motorcycle lovers. The PEMS data showed that motorcycles surpassed automobiles as pollution generators when it came to all other noxious emissions, and that while automobile emissions have gone down over the past three decades, motorcycle emissions have stayed roughly the same:
• Cycles created several hundred times more hydrocarbon pollution than cars. Hydrocarbons cause cancer, breathing and heart ailments, and contribute to smog.
• Nitrous oxide emissions, which cause smog and acid rain, were equal for the 1980s vehicle pair, but the 1990s cycle produced 138 percent more than its partner car, and the 2000s cycle up to 3,220 percent more.
• The 2000s-era cycle emitted 8,065 percent more poisonous-to-breathe carbon monoxide than its car partner, while the 1990s and 1980s cycles produced 516 percent and 313 percent more, respectively.
“We suspected that the results might turn out the way they did,” says Munro. “What surprised us was how big of a percentage difference that was discovered.”
The primary reason cars won this battle is simple: stricter regulation. Since the mid-1970s, federal standards on automobiles for reducing hydrocarbons and smog-causing tailpipe emissions have tightened—at a fairly steady pace until the 2000s, and picking up again since President Obama took office.
Motorcycle exhaust pipe, courtesy of Discovery Channel Mythbusters
These regulations helped spur the phase-out of leaded gasoline in the mid-1970s, and the use of emissions-scrubbing catalytic converters on automobiles, as well as other pollution-reducing technologies.
Motorcycles, by contrast, adhere to a less stringent federal standard than cars, because no practical way has been found to downsize a catalytic converter to fit onto a motorcycle. That standard was established in 1978, and remained unchanged from 1980 until around 2006.
In the long term, Global MRV’s Munro hopes that the company’s PEMS technology will become a consumer product that will help any driver fine-tune her or his automobile’s performance and cut emissions—perhaps via a subscription model similar to the OnStar vehicle security and communications service.
For now, the system and related consulting are still rather pricey—“For the testing and analysis we performed for the MythBusters Team, Global MRV typically charges $80,000 - $100,000,” says Munro—and the company continues to aim its services primarily at operators of large vehicle fleets, government agencies in the US and abroad, and researchers.
Beijing Smog by Flickr user michaelhenley
To amplify the scientific validity of the Bike vs. Car experiment, MythBusters turned to Kent Johnson, a University of California, Riverside vehicle emissions expert, to provide an independent analysis of the results.
He confirmed to Discovery News in September that the experiment was scientifically valid.
“It’s the first ever quantification of a true comparison between a car and a motorcycle, driven over identical conditions, using a portable measurement system. And this comparison was done for three decades of technology,” Johnson told reporter Sarah Simpson.
“Our best guess [of what the results would show] was off by a factor of three. That’s why these data could contribute to science.”
This article, written by Emily Gertz, was originally published on TalkingPointsMemo, an editorial partner of GreenCarReports.