Big Brother On Board

Published June 1, 1998

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems bent on becoming the country’s most intrusive government agency, a distinction most agree is currently held by the Internal Revenue Service.

In the name of reducing auto emissions, EPA is said to be “improving” the on-board pollution control system it requires under the hoods of American vehicles. While unlikely to improve air quality, the new Big Brother devices will make it much easier for EPA to know who’s driving what vehicles, and where they’re going.

The Little Black Box . . .

The heart of EPA’s on-board pollution control system is a collection of sensors and computers called OBD2 (OBD1 if your car is more than a couple years old). It senses a wide variety of engine problems that can result in the emission of pollutants such as ozone. When an OBD senses that a vehicle’s engine has developed a pollution-generating defect, it turns on a warning light that instructs the driver to have the vehicle repaired.

The OBD does not, however, tell the driver what is wrong. Only a qualified mechanic, with a scanning device that can be connected to the vehicle’s computer (for an average charge of between $50 and $60), can make that determination. Often–how often no one at EPA knows–the OBD “senses” a problem when none exists.

Though OBD devices have been installed in cars for years, at an average cost of $300 per vehicle, EPA has never conducted a real-world study of their reliability. According to Ed Gardetto of the EPA’s Emissions Program Group, the agency only recently began a two-year study of 200 vehicles to determine how well OBD2 devices function in detecting pollution-causing defects.

Bob Brooks, editor of Ward’s Engine Update, says the study might not be necessary “if EPA had a better relationship with the repair industry.” “The repair trade could tell EPA most of what it what it needs to know at little cost,” he adds.

. . . That Could Become a Spy

What may replace OBD2 is, naturally, OBD3. EPA officials flatly state they are not working on such a device, nor are they interested in doing so. Semantically, the “not working on” is correct. OBD3 is being developed by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which has already let a contract for the device’s preliminary development. That said, sources at EPA acknowledge they are “following California’s development of OBD3.”

When asked, both EPA and CARB officials cited only one difference between OBD3 and the unproven OBD2: the former includes a transponder–a tiny radio transmitter that relays emissions information about your vehicle, including its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), to remote receiving stations.

The purpose of OBD3, according to CARB’s Allan Lyons, is to reduce the number of costly vehicle emissions tests. In California, for example, every vehicle is tested for emissions every two years. Over 75 percent pass the test. Had it been known in advance that their pollution emissions were within permissible limits, those cars would not have had to be tested.

With OBD3 transponders transmitting emissions data to remote sensing stations, government officials would always know which vehicles are emitting an excess of pollutants and which are not.

Sounds good . . . except that OBD3 is identical, in all respects but the transponder, to OBD2–a system about which many questions remain unanswered. Moreover, OBD3 positively identifies every vehicle and can easily have sensors added to it to determine your vehicle’s speed and location. While all this sounds a little paranoid, even Lyons admits there are Big Brother concerns. “You can’t even discuss the subject without the issue of Big Brother coming up,” he acknowledges.

The Testing Mess

Paranoia aside, OBD3 may be nothing worse than simply more of a bad, or at least unproven, technology. But there seems to be little doubt that EPA’s current program of emission testing and “mandatory” repair is seriously flawed.

Testing and repair programs are required in many geographic areas out of compliance with EPA air-quality standards for ozone, carbon monoxide, and other gases. Those so-called “nonattainment” areas are primarily, though not exclusively, metropolitan areas.

Vehicle emissions testing, like OBD technology, has been with us for years, yet EPA has never studied whether vehicles in a “test and repair area” are less polluting than vehicles in other parts of the country to a degree that would justify the program’s cost. There are many reasons to believe that the test and repair program has little impact on vehicle emissions.

Permissible emission levels are set so high that many vehicles pass even though they are emitting a great deal more pollution than they would if properly maintained. “Old technology” vehicles–those built prior to today’s sophisticated pollution-control devices–are permitted to emit up to 900 parts per million of hydrocarbons, and new cars are permitted to emit up to 220 ppm. But emissions tests have shown that a well-maintained 1971 automobile can emit less than 30 ppm. Many drivers whose automobiles pass emissions test are led to believe their vehicles are non-polluting, when in fact they could be polluting much less (and burning fuel more efficiently) if they were even better maintained.

Equally deceiving is the notion that owners repair all vehicles that fail emissions tests. In fact, repairs are often avoided, both illegally and legally. Automobile owners in many states are able to illegally avoid repairs because the states have very poorly functioning procedures for correlating test failures and repairs with vehicle licensing. Those states unknowingly relicense polluting cars, putting them right back on the road.

Increasingly, though, polluting vehicles go unrepaired legally because of EPA policies. If a vehicle costs more than $450 to repair in such a way as to meet EPA standards, it gets a waiver–it can be legally driven without being repaired. A study conducted in 1994 by Sun Oil Company found that engines had become so complex that 60 percent of those failing emissions tests could not be fully repaired for $450. Moreover, the cost of repairs has increased dramatically in the last four years, primarily because of increased engine complexity brought on by tighter EPA limits on new car emissions.

A second problem caused by increased engine complexity, which results in higher new car prices, is a dramatic increase in older vehicles on the road. Ward’s Auto World has estimated that the number of cars ten years old or older on the nation’s roads increased from 10 million in 1975 to over 50 million in 1996 (trucks push the total to 80 million). On average, those older vehicles emit more pollutants than their newer counterparts. They also tend to be owned by persons of lower income. In California, where air-quality problems are legendary, low-income residents are allowed to take up to two years to make needed repairs.

The Maintenance Solution

A relatively simple solution to the upward spiral of costs, and its attendant negative effect on vehicle emissions, seems readily available. Unfortunately, it is a solution EPA is unlikely to promote.

“A good case can be made for calling a halt to complexity, which has counter-productive aspects, and focus instead on durability, maintainability and serviceability,” says Ward’s Brooks. “The underlying problem is that the public is deceived by regulators into thinking the answer to the pollution problem is tighter emissions standards applied to new vehicles.”

To prove his point, Brooks proudly points to the test results for his wife’s 1971 MG. The car continues to emit only about 5 percent of the hydrocarbons EPA standards allow for new, current-technology cars–or at least it did, before EPA-mandated reformulated gas came into use, pushing the MG’s hydrocarbon emissions to about half new-technology car limits.

Tom Randall is editor of Ramparts, the newsletter of The Citizens Alliance for Regulatory Reform.