Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2000   by CARS Magazine

Less Pollution, More Confusion

Emissions testing is having an impact on air quality in both B.C. and Ontario, but the future impact on the service industry remains uncertain

For a politician, the air quality issue is a no-brainer. As a vote-getter, everyone wants a clean environment, and in the case of auto exhaust emissions, the cost to motorists has been kept modest, at least in the near term. For the industry, however, the future is less certain, as new technologies and the very success of the inspection/maintenance (I/M) programs act to change the rules of the game.

Impressive statistics

As the newer of the two I/M programs, Ontario’s Drive Clean has delivered impressive statistics after one year of operation. Smog-causing pollutants from vehicles in the Drive-Clean program area (essentially the greater Toronto area) are down 6.7 percent, and are expected to drop by as much as 22 percent as Phase Two of the program brings most of Southern Ontario into compliance. For instance, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment claims a reduction of 18,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide, a “greenhouse gas” contributor to global warming, corresponding to a fuel savings equivalent of 120,000 fill-ups for a mid-size car.

The numbers seem impressive, but are rumours of underhanded practices true? No, according to the Ministry’s statistics. With just over one million vehicles tested, some 600 “performance incidents” were reported to the Ministry, for a total of one customer complaint for every 1,700 vehicles tested. The Ministry conducted 845 audits and 827 undercover inspections as a quality check, resulting in five temporary suspensions for re-training, and two criminal fraud charges. The industry in Southern Ontario has demonstrated outstanding professionalism in implementing the program, but the costs involved in equipping for and administering the low cost test have been a financial strain on many participating repair facilities.

Phase II of Drive Clean expands the testing area outside of the greater Toronto area and into the Southern Ontario communities of Peterborough, Barrie, Kitchener, London, Sarnia, Windsor and the Niagara peninsula. Mandatory testing in the Phase-Two area begins on January 1, 2001.

The British Columbia experience

In British Columbia, AirCare has been in operation since September 1992 using a centralized, contractor-operated model which performs about 1.1 million tests per year. AirCare pioneered ASM testing with NOx measurement and is preparing for AirCare II, an IM 240-based regime. The current testing fee is 24 dollars. Official AirCare repair facilities are certified, although there is no requirement that repairs be made at certified shops. Given its longer history, AirCare statistics are probably more representative of long-term trends than Drive Clean; the failure rate, however, is remarkably close to the Drive Clean experience to date (see tables).

B.C.’s AirCare experience has revealed some interesting facts about consumers and the vehicles they drive. Less than half of repairs are performed at certified repair facilities and the average costs of repair range from 200 to 245 dollars. Approximately 30 percent of repairs made at certified repair centres fail re-inspection, which accounts for the high waiver rate.

Waivers, which vary in cost by vehicle age (assuming no tampering with emissions equipment), are an attractive consumer option in the Lower Mainland test area, in part due to the advanced age of the vehicle fleet. Another factor is the role of the technician. The consumer generally needs to pass the test at the lowest possible cost, which conflicts with the program’s goal of full emissions system repair. The two conflicting requirements often place the technician in the middle, frequently resulting in minimal repairs to “just make it pass”. AirCare II, with the improved transient test (IM 240) for 1992 and later vehicles, is expected to improve consistency and consumer acceptance of the program, although the effects on the repair industry are difficult to predict.

AirCare II

AirCare II will use IM 240 and ASM 25/25 testing methodologies to make emissions testing more realistic by simulating real-world driving conditions. The most significant difference is the use of variable load/speed profiles in place of “steady state” testing. New vehicles will be exempted for two years, and 1992 and later vehicles will be tested every two years. The under-hood component inspection has been deleted and the testing profile will include second-by-second tracing to catch pollution transients. AirCare anticipates that the changes will double the failure rate for 1992 and newer vehicles.

AirCare II will also significantly affect the repair industry. Repair data will be collected and distributed over the Internet and vehicle repair and inspection histories will be available to all certified shops on-line. Minimal emission repair will be discouraged by increased repair cost limits and the expiry of waivers after only one year. Whether independent shops will be able to consistently repair vehicles to IM 240 standards without a dynamometer is an open question. Pressure testing of gas caps has been added to AirCare II, as has OBD II interrogation for 1998 and newer vehicles. Gas cap testing and OBD are known quantities to most technicians, but it’s certain that shops without the capability to dynamometer-test vehicles will be at a disadvantage, especially since AirCare II’s testing method catches transient failures. This disadvantage may disappear, however, as advanced OBD begins to take over from tailpipe testing in the future.

Both AirCare and Drive Clean are in a period of transition, and both have experienced successes as well as growing pains in start-up and operations. Air quality is improving, but many consumers are still suspicious of both governments and the repair industry. And many motorists still believe that smog service is a collusive cash grab for the service industry, an illusion that tougher testing will do nothing to eliminate.

Smog service and the law

If a smooth-running economical engine, and the need for a test pass isn’t enough to convince a customer to invest in emissions service, there is one more aspect which technicians should mention: the law. As an example, consider Ontario Regulation 361/98:

7. (1) If a motor or motor vehicle is manufactured with a system or device to prevent or lessen the emission of any contaminant, no person shall operate or cause or permit the operation of the motor or motor vehicle if the system or device, or any replacement therefor,

a) is not maintained or kept in such a state of repair that it is capable of performing the function for which it was intended; or

b) is not kept installed on, attached to or incorporated in the motor or motor vehicle in such a manner that, when the motor vehicle is operating, the system or device functions in the manner in which it was intended to function.

The meaning is clear: it’s illegal in Ontario to drive a vehicle, or let someone else drive a vehicle, with non-functional emissions equipment, regardless of a Drive Clean pass or fail. While the regulation won’t convince every consumer, especially if the vehicle passed the test, it’s something that both professional techs and service advisors should mention. Even OBD is a factor, as it is also prohibited to drive a vehicle that is storing an emissions-related fault code in its ECM. Let them know that “Check Engine” is more than a suggestion; it’s the law.

Light-duty vehicles tested since January 1999
Vehicles passed initial test1,323,00085%
Vehicles failed initial test235,00015%
Accredited light-duty Drive Clean facilities
Test only29
Repair only137
Certified technicians and inspectors
Inspectors/Repair Tech1725
Repair Tech 320

Total Inspections7,245,000100%
Failed Inspections1,027,00014.2 %
Waivers110,50011 % of fails
Vehicles Inspected1,741,000
Vehicles Failed at Least Once508,000
Percent of Vehicles Failed29%
Source: D. Gourley, S.J. Stewart, AirCare


The expression “garbage in, garbage out” originated in the computer industry, but it can be equally applied to auto engine technology, especially as the industry trends toward zero emissions. Current emission control technology has reduced hydrocarbons (HC) by 98 percent, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) by 90 percent, and carbon monoxide (CO) by 96 percent, compared to unregulated engines. Low Emission Vehicles (LEV’s) are capable of HC reductions to 99.3 percent and NOx to 95 percent, making LEV’s practically pollution-free. Gasoline is also getting cleaner, but as governments on both sides of the border tighten emissions limits, automakers are faced with a dilemma: the fuel going into the vehicles is now a major factor in emissions system performance, yet it’s the automaker who must warrant overall emissions levels.

To address the growing importance of “clean” fuel, the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association has launched a certification program designed to encourage refiners to market cleaner gasoline. Called Auto Maker’s Choice, the program allows refiners who meet tougher standards to gain a street-level marketing advantage over competing brands. While all Canadian refiners and fuel retailers have been invited to join the program, to date Irving Oil Ltd. is the sole participant, although more are expected as regulatory deadlines near. Auto Maker’s Choice fuels, however, will be more controlled than the sulphur-reduced fuels mandated by the federal government.

What’s in it for the consumer? Improved driveability, fewer upper cylinder deposit issues, and cleaner emissions are possible selling points, as is the ability of lower sulphur fuels to partially reverse sulphur contamination of catalytic converters. Will consumers pay more for the product? That’s the make-or-break issue, and at current fuel pricing, Auto Maker’s Choice fuels will have to sell at a small or zero premium to earn significant market share.

Sulphur (ppm)1000 max,200 max,80 max,
360 average150 average30 average
Deposit Additives
Intake ValveVariesControlledEnhanced
Combustion ChamberVariesControlledEnhanced
Injector Flow RatesVaries<5% loss<5% loss
Lead5 mg/Lnot detectablenot detectable
Source: Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association

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