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[Annals of bureaucracy]

Emissions impossible

An odyssey into the multiple confusions of smog-checking your car

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Illustration by Colleen Wang

When her car surprisingly failed its smog check, my friend Andrea was told by Terrible Herbst technicians to take it to a DMV-certified 2G station for repairs. She found a list of such stations on the DMV’s website, and we took her perfectly purring Toyota 4Runner to Auto Tech Green Valley, where technicians ran a computer diagnostic test and gave her an estimate: $1,344.75.

She had about a week before her Nevada registration renewal was due, and of course you can’t get registered without the smog check. The Auto Tech employee explained that there was really no way around it; if you want to pass smog, this is how much the repairs will cost. Or, she said, if you want to apply for a DMV smog-check waiver, you have to prove you spent a minimum of $450 at a 2G station attempting to get emission-compliant, and then you’ll have to do that again next year when you fail again.

“What if we can get a non-2G station to fix it for less?” I asked.

“It won’t pass smog without these parts,” she told us. “And if they can do it for less, I don’t know where they’re getting the parts, probably aftermarket, and it’ll probably need to be fixed again next year. And if it doesn’t pass, then the money you spent with a non-2G station doesn’t apply toward your waiver.”

We hopped in the suddenly horrifying money-suck of a vehicle and fled, fretting a little about spewing environmentally unfriendly toxins and a lot about coming up with $1,344.75.

Upon researching the matter, we were comforted to know that had this happened in Washoe County, we’d only have to spend $200 at a 2G station proving we’d made a noble attempt to fix the problem, not $450. And we could even try to fix it ourselves, were we so inclined. But not in Clark County. More on this in a bit.

So a couple of days later, we took the car to another 2G station—these, it turns out, are auto shops where technicians have passed a test in administering the DMV’s computer-diagnosed smog check. Miraculously, a mechanic at the randomly picked Precision Tune Auto Care on Eastern fixed the car and re-smogged it—and it passed—for $100.91.

Andrea registered her car and saved $1,243.84. The end.

Except, what the hell? We’re all familiar enough with being cattle-prodded into submission by the DMV and confused by mechanics, but the difference in the potential outcomes here seems extra-specially egregious.

Turns out, as with most of reality, there’s a totally unsatisfying series of bureaucratic answers that apply to us all.

“Sounds like you ran into a bad shop,” says Kevin Malone, DMV spokesman. “But I can’t be sure, of course.”

More likely, we ran into the world of computer diagnostics bumping headlong into the world of human foibles, against a backdrop of economic desperation and environmental despair.

The DMV relies on vehicles’ onboard computer diagnostic systems, which, I am told by mechanics and regulators, are Big Brother-ish devices that constantly check up on your car (“Sometimes if you go out to your car in the middle of the night, you can hear it buzzing, doing its diagnostics,” says Tabitha Grice, manager at Auto Tech). More than that, these onboard computers, added after 1996 to most cars, are responsible for totally changing the repair industry, the job of the mechanic and the smog-check process—for the better, of course, because that’s what computers do, simplify and automate tasks so that everything runs smoothly and accurately.

Unless, in the case of onboard diagnostic computers, you unplug them, reset them and run the smog test before the computer knows enough about the car’s condition to report that the car is sick, in which case you pass the smog check without fixing the bad parts.

When Andrea’s Toyota computer was hooked up to the diagnostic reader and Auto Tech technicians read the codes, they said she needed an evap canister, a VSV solenoid and an O2 sensor. And that’s what they ordered. When Precision Tune mechanic Peter Ehrman read the same diagnostics, he says the amount and type of codes led him to believe there was a wiring and fuse problem with the onboard computer. So he rerouted a wire, reset the computer and drove it a few minutes, and, voila, it passed smog.

I can’t say that I understand the details of computers or cars. And that, of course, is the reason this is a story at all—when we are tragically ignorant, we are at the mercy of the less so. Fortunately, we can rely on our government agencies to look out for our best interests. More on that in a bit. In this case, both shops assert that they did the right thing, and consumers really have no way of knowing the truth. It’s possible that Grice’s mechanic didn’t look hard enough at the actual emissions system and simply went with the codes and pricey parts; it’s possible that Ehrman saw a simpler but less thorough way to fix the problem, and time will tell whether his method lasts. One shop could be overcharging; one could be getting around the smog-check system in an effort to recruit a return customer. Or both could be fixing the same problem with equally viable but vastly cost-different ways. Or one could have made a mistake.

“A wire is hard to find. It might’ve been something our technician missed,” Grice says. “Credit their mechanic with finding it.

“But, I have to say,” she goes on, “there are a few customers who have asked us to just reset the onboard computer. I think it happens more often than not. ‘Just reset my computer,’ they say, ‘and it’ll pass.’

“In this economy, it’s a way a shop might just be trying to get customers.”

But, she says, she doesn’t do that, in no small part because the DMV sends out undercover cars to see whether their 2G shops are following the computer-dictated rules.

“If I pass a car without fixing it, I get a hefty fine myself from the DMV,” Grice says. “And then my shop gets fined. Anywhere from $500 to $2,000—and then you can lose your license forever.

“I’d rather err on the side of fixing the vehicle.” Plus, she says, she believes the computer is more accurate.

But, Ehrman says, the computer isn’t always right, and it takes a mechanic thinking to find the best solution. “In 30 years, I’ve watched this business change with new technology,” Ehrman says. “The industry has a bad reputation for having dishonest technicians. A lot of guys are what we call ‘parts changers’ now, not technicians. They see the computer code and change the parts.

“We’re interested in bringing traffic into our store in this economy, and taking care of them. One of the ways I do that is I fix their cars; I look for the simple way to fix it. And they’re happy that I’m honest,” he says.

“I could go on for hours about the corrupt nature of the auto industry,” Ehrman says. “And there’s no one overseeing the whole industry.”

True enough. But the whole rigmarole of the smog-check process was prompted by government aiming to oversee a problem: Air that’s polluted by car emissions is unhealthy for people to breathe.

This strikes Ehrman as an odd priority when it comes to cars, their potential to harm and the government’s caring for the public’s well-being.

“Why wouldn’t safety devices be mandated for checks and repairs, rather than just air quality?” he says. “I’ve seen cars leave shops with brakes scraping metal on metal because they didn’t want to pay for it, but we’re not doing government-mandated inspections for that; we’re worried about not polluting the air.”

Furthermore, shouldn’t the burden of creating cars that don’t spew bad emissions fall entirely on the manufacturer? Everybody who’s seen the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? knows that automakers had the technology to part ways with Big Oil a long time ago—but I digress, because I’m the little guy stuck with the unaffordable bill at the smog-check garage. I’m the little guy who has to choose between not making a mortgage payment this month and fixing the emissions on the car, or making the mortgage and carrying the weight of polluting the universe, while the automakers ask for a multibillion-dollar government bailout.

But rather than dwell on that, we’ll have to look at the logic behind the smog-check waiver, which you can get if you can’t afford to truly fix your car’s smog problem. You must simply spend a minimum of $450 at a DMV-certified station, which seems a tenuous connection to causing clean air.

And why that amount? And why only $200 in Washoe County? Tabitha Grice at Auto Tech didn’t know; Peter Ehrman at Precision Tune didn’t know; Kevin Malone at the DMV didn’t know; Amy Zimpfer, regional director at the EPA, didn’t know.

DMV Emissions Training Specialist Hal Greene knew somewhat: It has to do with the counties’ different pollution levels and the Clean Air Act. Apparently Washoe County’s air isn’t as bad as Clark County’s, so they don’t have to spend as much in a failed attempt to fix their noncompliant cars, even though those cars may spew the same amount as noncompliant cars in Clark County. Because the overall problem isn’t as huge yet, those drivers need to put half as much of their wallets into caring: $200 worth.

“Honestly, I don’t get it either,” Greene says. “The idea was simply that if you spend $450 this year, next year you’ll have to pay another $450 toward fixing the problem, and sooner or later you’ll either get it fixed or get a new car.”

The good news in all of this, aside from Andrea’s incredible savings, is that the EPA tells me the computerized smog checks must be working, whether there are go-arounds on the system or not. Well, says Karina O’Connor, Nevada EPA rep, something’s working, although we really can’t be entirely sure what:

“Overall air quality for criteria pollutants [carbon monoxide, particulate matter and ozone] has been improving in Clark County,” she wrote in an e-mail to me.

I am happy about that, as I’m sure all residents are.

But that’s where this harrowing story of the smog-check conundrum must end: a lot of good intentions and different agendas that come down to making a thin slice of sense. And your chances of having any real control over the situation—whether your car’s computer is right, whether your mechanic is honest, whether you die in a car accident tomorrow or from the effects of environmental pollution later—are thinner yet.

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