Emissions Test Damage Reports Mount

Published June 1, 1999

Illinois EPA (IEPA) reports it received 276 claims of automobile damage caused by the new IM-240 dynamometer emissions test in February and March. The new test was launched on February 1 and is currently employed in 139 test lanes at 35 test stations in the state.

Motorists interviewed for this story reported test damage ranging from blown head gaskets to “destroyed” engines and transmissions. Envirotest Systems, the firm to which IEPA has contracted the IM-240 test operation, has routinely refused to compensate motorists who claim their vehicles were damaged by the test. In turn, IEPA has refused to act on motorists’ complaints, referring vehicle owners with claims against Envirotest to the Better Business Bureau.

Among the damage claims reported by motorists:

  • John Mason says the engine in his 1986 Chevy Blazer, with 158,000 miles, was given two full back-to-back tests without regard for adequate cooling of the engine, which he says was “completely destroyed.” Immediately after the test, the truck went a short distance from the test station, but the engine died and the truck had to be towed. He says the vehicle had been providing reliable transportation to and from work before the test. Envirotest has said it will pay nothing for the damage, which it claims was caused by an existing condition. Mason says it was obvious the test driver was paying no attention to overheating, and he could not communicate with the driver, who was not fluent in English.
  • Marge O’Connell says her 1991 Oldsmobile, with just 50,000 miles, was tested February 23. The next day it blew out its head gasket and had to be towed. An auto dealership, which billed her $833.50 for subsequent repairs, told her sudden acceleration could have caused the damage.
  • Tony Sacco’s S-10 Chevy Blazer was emissions-tested on February 6. Sacco says the truck “smelled funny” after the test; soon after he found the #2 and #3 servo in his automatic transmission had failed. He returned to the test station, was directed to a transmissions repair shop to have the problem diagnosed, and had the transmission repaired by a shop closer to home.
  • Norman Flasch also has had transmission problems since his 1991 Pontiac Grand Am was tested. He says the torque converter now periodically sticks in lock-up, a problem he attributes to overheating during the test. He noted that the test station operates without a cooling fan in front of the vehicle, which would duplicate ram air driving on the road. Flasch, formerly an equipment technician at Borg-Warner’s transmission development facility in Chicago, says “we would never treat test vehicles this way.”
  • Dr. Clarence Close, a retired physician, says the brakes on his 1991 Cadillac no longer work as well as they did after an emissions test at which he says he observed the test driver abusing his vehicle. Brake repairs cost $313. Shortly after that repair, he discovered the exhaust pipe was broken just ahead of the catalytic converter; his repair shop said the break was caused by a broken motor mount. The repair is expected to cost between $400 and $500.
  • The damage to Roy Czajkowski’s 1986 Ford pickup truck was witnessed by the test station manager. After driving the truck off the dynamometer, the test driver got out of the vehicle, leaving the door open, the engine running, and the shift in reverse. The driverless vehicle backed up, hitting a solid post that smashed the open door and bent its frame. Repairs will cost about $1,100. Czajkowski expects to recover the cost of repairing his truck, but has also asked Envirotest to reimburse him for the rental vehicle he will have to use while the pickup is being repaired.
  • Tom Berry, long-time owner of an import car repair shop, says a customer brought in a 1985 SAAB 900 turbo with a chipped manual transmission gear tooth, the result of IM-240 emissions testing. No rebuilt transmission is available from his usual suppliers, so Berry will install a used transmission. Parts and labor will cost the car’s owner $1,900.

These reports suggest two likely explanations for the vehicle damage being caused by the IM-240: poorly trained test personnel and flawed test design. Paying just $6.50 an hour, Envirotest is attracting low-skilled workers who are apparently insufficiently trained in the procedures needed to safely test vehicles on the dynamometer. The test itself is significantly flawed by the lack of adequate ram air cooling.

While owners whose vehicles have been damaged by the new emissions test now have little recourse beyond an appeal to the Better Business Bureau, the Illinois legislature may soon provide an alternative. The Senate has passed, and the House is considering, a bill that will allow vehicle owners to collect triple damages, legal fees, and court costs when a court determines Envirotest wrongly refused to compensate a motorist.

The end result may be a moratorium on the IM-240’s use. Ohio has already rejected the test, replacing it with a low-speed, single-speed test deemed “vehicle friendly” by the Ohio EPA.

Efforts to ban IM-240 testing in Illinois may be bolstered by a report recently released by Resources for the Future. The Washington, DC-based think tank has concluded that Arizona’s IM-240 test does little to reduce hydrocarbon (HC) automobile emissions.

The U.S. EPA has claimed that its IM-240 test will reduce hydrocarbon emissions nationwide by 15 pounds per 10,000 miles traveled per year. The agency contrasts this with a reduction of 6.5 pounds it estimates is achieved with standard tailpipe emissions tests.

But according to Resources for the Future, Arizona’s IM-240 test is achieving annual hydrocarbon emission reductions of only 2.5 pounds per year–just 17 percent of what EPA claims will be achieved, and no better than what Illinois has achieved with its simple BAR-90 idle test.

The Resources for the Future analysis supports a conclusion reached by other clean air researchers: It makes little difference what test is employed to spot high-pollution vehicles. Emissions reduction is a function not of testing, but of a repair technician’s talent and a vehicle owner’s willingness to pay the bill.

Bob Brooks is a correspondent for the industry newsletter Ward’s Engine and Vehicle Technology Update.