To fight global warming, Europeans are steering the world's automakers toward an overhaul of automotive air conditioning systems.
But Europe may be rushing to judgment about which technology is best for limiting the environmental impact of air conditioners, some industry experts say. About 400 million vehicles with air conditioners are on the world's roads.
"It's more of a muddled mess" than just a few months ago, says Ward Atkinson, one of the people trying to help the industry pick a new air conditioning technology that would satisfy all markets.
Atkinson, a retired General Motors engineer, is chairman of two Society of Automotive Engineers' committees on air conditioning.
The problem has been on the horizon for years. But a European initiative has drastically shortened both the time available to solve it and the list of possible solutions.
The industry has known since mid-2006 that the European Union would require a phaseout of the refrigerant used in vehicles since the mid-1990s, known as R-134a. That had replaced Freon, or R-12, as the refrigerant of choice. That switch took years and led to a near black market in Freon, since older air conditioners couldn't use R-134a.
Automakers and suppliers thought they would have time to consider a number of options that would contribute less to global warming. But the German industry association, known as VDA, has decided it prefers carbon dioxide, or CO2, a naturally occurring compound, as the new refrigerant.
Germany is the leading automotive player in Europe. It is well ahead of every other country on the continent in vehicle production and sales. It is home to industry powerhouses such as Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW and Adam Opel.
So choices made there "may force us to do something that is not best environmentally or for the consumer," Atkinson told Automotive News.