Little GoCars are big polluters

Anyone frequenting North Beach, Fisherman's Wharf, or other S.F. tourist haunts has been startled by the chainsawlike whine of tiny yellow three-wheelers hurtling by as a recorded voice bellows GPS-guided driving directions.

These GoCars use the same 50cc, two-stroke motorboat-style engine found in high-gas-mileage mopeds and Chinese mini-scooters, which have become all the rage with the advent of high gasoline prices.

Because the GoCars are high-mileage, they don't emit much greenhouse gas. So they're an environmentally sound way to tour the city, right?

Not so fast, greenie.

"It would probably be better to have the Hummer tour of San Francisco," says John Swanton, air pollution specialist with the California Air Resources Board. "From a smog standpoint, I can't tell you exactly what the magnitude of emissions are, but I can tell you for a fact that it's worse than the Hummer or Escalade."

Two-stroke engines mix oil with gas and air in the combustion chamber, so they emit the kind of smoke responsible for respiratory illnesses and for the brown haze that sometimes blankets the California Central Valley.

SF Weekly multimedia ace Janine Kahn and I recently spent an afternoon touring San Francisco in one of these polluting little road demons. Our mission was to read engine markings over a cell phone to Swanton to see if the nasty little things are actually street legal. After paying more than $60 to rent one for a mere hour — that's right, tourists actually pay a dollar a minute to ride a three-wheeled scooter — and crawling under the body with phone in hand, we found that the cars don't appear to violate state pollution laws.

And therein lies the problem: So far, California has failed to regulate small two-stroke-engine-powered polluters because there weren't very many of them. Since gas prices reached $4, they're everywhere.

In any case, Nathan Withrington, the transplanted Brit who founded GoCar in San Francisco in 2004 before expanding to San Diego, Miami, Barcelona, and Lisbon, told SF Weekly that during the next 18 months he plans to swap his local fleet of 44 two-stroke-engine vehicles for cleaner ones. But he isn't doing this purely for noble environmental reasons. The state plans to eventually impose new smog restrictions, Swanton says.

"That's why we're making the investment and cleaning everything up," Withrington said.

So if all goes according to plan, 18 months from now, when locals hear a voice bellowing recorded driving instructions and turn around to see a little yellow tourist scooter barreling at them, at least they'll no longer be bathed in oily, stinky smoke.

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