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What do you mean, I failed?

New emissions test quick, state of the art and flawed

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Since May, when the state began a new way of testing emissions in all metro Atlanta vehicles, failure rates have gone through the roof, in some cases even quadrupling.

In June alone, more than 8,000 cars -- almost 12 percent of the total tested -- failed. Compare that to the previous June, when the failure rate was only 3 percent. Numbers are even more alarming when considering individual model year cars. For instance, in June 2001, only 491 of 1996 model year vehicles failed the test; this June, almost 3,000 1996 cars failed.

William Mullis, program manager for the state's Environmental Protection Division, in a bit of a bureaucratic understatement, says the statistics are "a little higher than we'd like them to be."

But they also raise significant questions. Perhaps most obvious is whether the old test, which involved sticking a sensor up your car's tailpipe, was passing cars it shouldn't have, leaving thousands of cars in metro Atlanta free to spew pollutants into the air.

Mullis acknowledges that the new procedure is "a much more stringent test than what we've used before," he says. And the old test, which is still used in pre-1996 cars, has been made tougher, he says.

But there's a second question raised by the remarkable failure rates: Could it be it's not the cars but the test itself that is flawed?

To answer that, it helps to know how different the new test is from the old one. Instead of testing emissions directly, the new test downloads emissions information from your car's "on-board" computer. The idea is that the car's computer keeps more accurate emissions data than can be found by testing the exhaust coming out of the tailpipe.

But the same process that is designed to improve the test -- up-linking with the car's computer -- is also, paradoxically, one of the reasons that so many cars are failing.

For instance, "normal driving" is supposed to activate different sensors in your car's emissions system. If even one of those codes isn't "ready" at the time of the emissions test, the car will fail.

At this point, the car needs to be put through a "drive cycle" -- a test that's supposed to emulate normal driving conditions and will, presumably, activate your car's sensor.

"A large percentage [of failures] may not actually require repairs to correct, only additional driving," Mullis explained.

If only it were as simple as cruising down the HOV lane on I-85. For example, a drive cycle designed to activate just one code for a 1998 Honda Civic requires that the gas tank be between 60 and 90 percent full, that it sit for at least eight hours, that you drive at a steady speed between 50 and 70 miles per hour for one minute without moving the accelerator pedal, that you stop, and then repeat the drive test two more times. Other tests require speeding up to 65 miles per hour, then slowing down, then speeding up again.

Even then, of course, there's no guarantee your car's codes will be activated. State law allows a free re-test for those cars that fail, but after that, it's another $25. In July, almost a quarter of re-tested vehicles failed again. Before the new test, failure rates of re-tested cars hovered around 10 percent.

There are other ways to fail the new test. If your car's "check engine" light is on, your car will fail. "That light only comes on when something happens to cause the emissions to be more than 150 percent of the way the car was certified for sale," says Stephen Leydon, vehicle emissions testing coordinator for the EPD. "If that light is on, you need to get it looked at."

No matter what the reason for failure, it's the driver's responsibility to get repairs done. If he can show he's spent at least $648 on repairs, and the car still fails, the driver may be eligible for a waiver. But the state is stingy on who it gives waivers to: For instance, although in June the failure rate for 1996 cars and newer was up 400 percent over the previous June, the state was giving out just 8 percent more waivers for all cars.

Emissions testing is big business for emission testing facilities, repair shops and the state. In June, more than 60,000 people had their emissions tested, generating $1.5 million in receipts that month alone.

Randy Ammons, a manager at the Emission Check on Piedmont Road in Buckhead, says he has seen an increased failure rate since the new testing began. "A lot [of customers] have been upset," he said.

Lost amid all these numbers and bureaucratic hurdles is the purpose of the emissions test in the first place -- improving Atlanta's air quality. Says Leydon: "We want clean air. That's the entire reason we're doing this."

The problem is, the new emissions test is casting such a wide net, drivers of clean vehicles are also being snagged. And the state is showing no signs of wanting to free them.



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