What the Heck is Going On With California’s Smog Inspection Program?

One of the things anyone who moves to California has to deal with is the Smog Inspection Program. California is the father of motor vehicle smog inspections; it all started here. California used to lead the pack in innovation. I say used to because I don’t think they do anymore.

A disclaimer is called for before I proceed. I worked for the Department of Consumer Affairs and/or Bureau of Automotive Repair for twenty years, primarily on the Smog Program for over ten years. I also sat on the Inspection and Maintenance Review Committee (IMRC), a governmental advisory committee, from 2001 until I moved in late 2010 (the committee was disbanded shortly after I stepped down).

I was amazed when I had to get my vehicles inspected in Vegas at how easy it was, especially for the 2002 Focus. That car has second generation On Board Diagnostics generally known as OBD II. The smog inspection consisted of the technician connected the smog machine to the OBD port on the Focus and wait for the download of information. That was it; it took all of fifteen minutes from start to finish.

My ’87 Toyota pickup needed what is known as a Two-Speed Idle test. The engine is run at two RPMs; 2,500 and idle. A visual inspection of required smog equipment and a fuel cap test are also performed. The test has its limitations but USEPA approves of Nevada’s tests.

The amazing part of the Nevada tests is that both tests use the exact same machine. The downside to Nevada’s tests is the seeming large number of fraudulent inspections. I say “seemingly” because of the large number of vehicles I saw that never could have passed a legitimate inspection. Whether these vehicles received fraudulent inspections or otherwise avoided inspections is unknown to me.

Having been away from California for almost four years, and knowing that OBD II testing had been debated before I left; I was curious how it would go. I’m curious no more.

As part of the registration process our cars have to pass a smog inspection. The Focus was first. Because of misinformation and poor planning (DMV in the first case; me in the second) I had to scramble to find a smog station and didn’t have any coupons at hand. I paid full freight. But that really isn’t relevant.

What is relevant was watching the inspection process. The whole process was similar to what I experienced in Vegas with the exception of a full visual inspection and a completely separate smog machine (OIS or OBD Inspection System) for the OBD inspection instead of the EIS (Emissions Inspection System). That’s the problem in my opinion; California has once again decided to reinvent the wheel. And it is still just a wheel.

When I first joined the BAR, BAR 90, the “new” smog inspection program and machine, had just recently been implemented. It was supposed to be a ten year program/machine. Later on when Smog Check II was implemented it was supposed to be an upgradable program which would allow the smog machine to soldier on. Both fell short of their goals.

In my opinion one of the fatal flaws of these smog machines was actually with BAR. Smog machines are run by computers and computers, as we all know, have a useful life that expire before they even hit the market. Instead of allowing the equipment makers to sell the latest computers to upgrade machines BAR demanded new machines. There have been exceptions of course.

Smog station owners regularly complained that the new equipment was too expensive and took too long to amortize. This was especially true for the repair shop owners whose main business was not smog inspections. (Some shops that specialized in smog inspections complained regardless, it was almost a sport for them. I remember one station complaining that they couldn’t afford to replace a hose for the machine; I pointed out that they performed 1,200 inspections per month at an average of $20.00 per inspection. They bought a new hose.)

So why did BAR require an all new machine for OBD testing? It makes no sense. A smog station has the regular smog machine (EIS), a dynometer (a stationary rolling road that allows a car to be tested in “real” world conditions), a fuel cap tester (sometimes stand alone), and now an OBD (OIS) testing machine.

To make matters worse for the smog stations the legislature has reduced the number of vehicles that need to be tested. Some vehicles six years old or newer are exempt, 1974 and older are exempt and a few others. The BAR has a table to show what needs to be inspected at: http://www.bar.ca.gov/pdf/Smog_Check_Requirements_by_Vehicle_Type.pdf

When I was on the IMRC we discussed OBD testing. The prevailing wisdom from USEPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) was that OBD testing was the best way to go. The On-Board Diagnostic system, built into most cars produced since 2000, checks the operating systems of the vehicle, setting codes (and turning on warning lights) for malfunctions. In theory and in practice any system that affects the emissions systems is monitored. There have been exceptions though.

And it is those exceptions that were argued against wide-spread adoption of OBD only testing for OBD vehicles. “What if there are false passes?” was a frequent question. The fact that these are few and far between (yes there are some false pass results).

But that doesn’t answer why the BAR requires a special test machine for OBD testing. In Nevada the same machine is used for both tests. I would imagine that it required a software update but so what? It amazes me that the BAR couldn’t partner with some of Silicon Valley’s best to spec out a smog machine that could be updated whenever needed.

The BAR also requires a visual inspection of all vehicles for removed or tampered equipment. This may still be important on older vehicles but on OBD vehicles it seems unneeded. Again in theory if a piece of equipment adversely affects emissions the OBD system will detect it and turn on the warning light. Yes it may not always catch a problem but by and large it works.

Think about that – you could modify your vehicle and as long as it didn’t upset the OBD system your vehicle would pass the inspection. It seems like a sensible solution to illegally modified vehicles. I don’t know if BAR or the Air Resources Board (ARB) was behind the visual inspection but I do know who pays – the consumer.

The BAR needs to have a more common sense approach to the Smog Inspection Program, one that uses technology in a smarter way. One problem as I see it is that the BAR’s Engineering Department is woefully short of engineers of any kind. Another problem is their inability to use ideas and/or equipment that wasn’t developed or designed in house.

The political process deserves much of the blame as well. Like anything else done in any capitol the smog program is essentially designed by lobbyists. The auto makers and their dealers lobbied for exemptions for new vehicles because less than 1% fail an inspection and those that do fail will be repaired under warranty. Old car collectors lobbied to exempt all older vehicles and the result is that all cars 1974 and older are now exempt (even though in the West and Southwest older cars stay on the road longer). The available pool of vehicles in the smog program has shrunk drastically.

The IMRC disbanded itself deciding it was no longer needed. I disagree; the IMRC is needed now more than ever. The BAR continues to grow in ways that do little to benefit the consumers and more to benefit itself. ARB continues to live in a world of their own (which may be a good thing but they need someone to say, “Good idea but what about …”). Smog stations are forced to buy new and expensive equipment to service a dwindling vehicular population. These are not problems that cannot be resolved.

I’d like to see California return to a leadership position in Smog Inspections. I’d like to see a reconstituted IMRC, one that includes the best minds without the bickering that paralyzed it for years (when I was appointed they were voting for the umpteenth time whether to exempt collector cars or not).

OBD testing should be the rule for newer cars without requiring separate machines or visual inspections. Older vehicles, at least those from 1966 through 1974, should be brought back into the program or, and this is a big or, their registration fees should increase to offset their pollution potential. (In fact maybe the whole registration fee schedule should be revamped to encourage consumers to purchase newer, less polluting vehicles.)

I say all of this as an old car owner, a consumer, and a person who likes to breathe clean air. All of these are not incompatible. A sensible Smog Inspection Program can make it happen.


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