Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2000   by CARS Magazine

The AirCare experience

David Gourley at the 2000 AIA Convention

Editor’s note:

British Columbia’s AirCare I/M program is approaching its eighth birthday, and the results have been impressive. Pacific Vehicle Testing Technologies’ David Gourley has been tracking this success, and delivered the following report at the AIA Annual Convention, held during the 2000 Canadian International Automotive Show in Montreal. David is a registered engineer in British Columbia, and is the manager for emission testing and standards for AirCare Program Administration. More details can be found at the program’s website:

The AirCare program

The program started in September 1992. There was a lot of groundwork that preceded it; really, it began in the mid-1980s. AirCare is a centralised contractor operated program, which means that a private company provides testing services under contract for the government. The program deals with about 1.1 million inspections/yr. The initial test fee was $16.05 and is now $24. The AirCare program was the first program to use the ASM, or the Acceleration Simulation Mode, a test procedure with “nox” measurement. In fact, not that many test programs use them now. One of the most important aspects of designing AirCare was the close co-operation with the repair industry. There’s really no emissions benefit to just inspecting vehicles. One has to take those vehicles that fail and repair them effectively in order to obtain emissions benefit, so to have close co-operation with the repair industry. We have 550 repair shops in AirCare program at the moment, we’ve lost some and gained some but have maintained that 550 number. We monitor the industry through a process that involves certified technicians, and we are confident that we provide good assurance to the public that they receive competent repair to their vehicles. To the end of August ’99, there have been 7.2 million inspections performed. There is a provision in the program that if your vehicle fails, you can obtain a provisional pass or waiver that allows you to re-licence your vehicle even though it doesn’t comply with the standards. Unfortunately, this has added up to 110,000 vehicles in the first 7 years of the program that represents 11 percent of all failed inspections.

Most important, however, the number of vehicles inspected in the first seven years was 1.7 million and the number of vehicles that failed at least once was 29.2 percent, just over half a million of those 1.7 million vehicles failed at some point. So it’s not to say that you have a 10 percent failure rate every year, with the same 10 percent year after year. Different vehicles fail every year, and that’s why it’s important to keep this process rolling because you identify problems, they will stay corrected, and new problems will be corrected as they occur.

Vancouver has the oldest fleet in Canada due to the climate. The number of vehicles over the age of 15 years in the fleet tends to fall off pretty dramatically. The number of vehicles that fail for ’98-’99 shows very few failures amongst new vehicles, and correspondingly few failures amongst very old vehicles. In the middle is where the bulk of dirty vehicles exist. The failure rate is extremely low for new vehicles. And the standards we use at AirCare are probably the tightest in North America, and despite that we have a low failure rate. In fact, for the 1992 and later vehicles which are the ones that have always been subjected to AirCare testing, the failure rate for that whole group from 1992-1998 is currently less than 2 %, and yet they represent almost half a million vehicles, almost half of the fleet. New technology vehicles are extremely clean: a big shift occurs in 1987, that’s coincident with a change with federal emissions standards that occurred in the 1988 model year. To a large degree, the fleet post-1987 is very different from the pre-1987 fleet.

The impact of AirCare

As far as what AirCare has done to air quality in Vancouver, it has improved dramatically. Emissions in tons caused by light duty vehicles is going down dramatically because old technology vehicles are replaced with new technology vehicles anyway. What AirCare has done is to accelerate that fleet turnover and make corrections to vehicles already in the fleet and as a result we’ve seen an initial 30 percent reduction. The big difference of where we are today and where we would have been in 1992 had we just flattened that curve, is about 50% reduction in vehicle emissions. Unfortunately we see that line is bottoming out, and it is concerning, and points to the fact that these new vehicles are clean. Once you have run the vehicles through the process a number of times, the potential for big gains gets used up.

Public issues with AirCare

There are not a lot of positives. We talk about AirCare as the program that people love to hate, because it requires action on their part and affects their daily lives. Everybody wants change but nobody wants to do anything about it themselves, particularly if it’s going to cost them money. One of the big issues we’ve had is test-re-testability, which is an unfortunate fact in motor vehicles: we take them, we test them a couple of times, we don’t always get the same result, particularly if there’s something wrong with the vehicle. And it’s almost become a matter of folklore in Vancouver: If you fail the test, roll the dice and take another test, maybe you’ll pass, maybe you won’t. It really undermines the credibility of the program and it’s something we have to address. Another issue with new vehicles, people don’t like the idea of spending a whole lot of money for a new car and then they must pay to get it tested and then of course it’s the warranty-that’s a big issue.

The public started telling us from day one that everyone knows that cars don’t cause emissions; it’s the diesel trucks and buses that cause all the black smoke. Also old vehicles that emit blue smoke are well known to the public as polluting vehicles, and the one with no emissions coming from the tailpipe is not an emitter. Another complaint is: “Why don’t you have the safety inspection associated with this inspection? I don’t care if the guy behind me has a green tailpipe, I want to make sure that he doesn’t bump my rear end.” We haven’t been able to introduce a safety inspection into our program. Another complaint: The AirCare program is only run in Vancouver, and everyone should be subject to the same punishment. The answer to that of course is that there’s an air quality problem in Vancouver, there isn’t one on Vancouver Island, so why bring the program there?

The repair industry

We have 550 shops. Less than 50 percent of the repairs are actually done at certified shops. The public seems to have a fear that AirCare certified shops are somehow affiliated with the inspection centres, or that there’s some sort of collusion that would cause them to spend more money on their cars. Nevertheless, the average cost of repairs for AirCare has only been $200 – $245, which suggests that lots of repairs are done fairly inexpensively. Unfortunately, we have a high labour rate, labour you can get only at a certified AirCare repair facility. If you go somewhere else, you must pass the test. Consistently since the program began, about 30 percent of the vehicles that go to the certified shops actually don’t pass the re-inspection. Sometimes that’s because it would cost more than the applicable repair cost, and sometimes it’s because the technicians don’t actually repair the vehicle. There’s a real misunderstanding we’ve found with the repair industry. The car owner has failed the test and wants to pass that test at the cheapest possible cost; that’s all the customer wants. What we want as program administration is to correct all the defects on that vehicle – make that vehicle as clean as it can possibly be. Those are conflicting objectives. It’s one where the repair industry can fall into a trap: they can be the hero for the customer, do a quick and easy repair on the vehicle, get it through the test, and of course three weeks later the car is a hig
h emitter again. That’s not what we want to do. We’ve also seen a shift away from tune-up related repairs to real emission repairs, which is catalytic converter replacements, oxygen sensor replacements, carburettor overhauls, repairs that actually can realistically affect emissions. Air filters, PCV valves, plugs and wires, really should be done as part of regular maintenance and not as part of emissions repair.

Goals for AirCare II

Goals for AirCare II are: improve the consistency of the test, improve public confidence in the program, maintain effectiveness in the program (because the new cars are getting cleaner, the definition of a dirty car is changing, a dirty car today would have been a technological marvel twenty years ago). We must improve the compliance rate with the program. We must see people making sure they have their vehicles tested and they get the repair if they fail. We’re going to be changing our inspection process to a transient test, IM 240, for 1992 and later vehicles and we’re going to enhance the ASM portion of the test for 1991 vehicles and older. The steady-state ASM trace is very simple: you’re just holding constant speed. In contrast, the IM 240 trace is a much more representative trace of an actual vehicle driving. It makes the vehicle accelerate, decelerate, cruise, idle, all the normal modes are in there. In order for a vehicle to pass the emissions standards for that kind of test it really has to be working the way it was designed. We’re going to be putting four wheel drive dynamometers in each inspection centre for 4×4 and traction control vehicles. We’re getting rid of our under-hood inspection, we’ve not found much evidence of tampering with emission controls, particularly on new technology vehicles. People are terrified of seeing anything under the hood now and they won’t touch anything there or mess around with it.

We’ll also add a gas cap pressure test and on-board diagnostics for 1992 and later vehicles. It’s in transition mode now. We have a new contract for another seven years with Environment Canada. Construction is underway on inspection centres right now and we’re planning to launch AirCare II on Sept. 1 this year. The fee went up to $24 in Jan. 2000.

We’re going to be providing more emissions information to the repair industry including a second by second trace for the technicians. As far as compliance changes, we are going to be exempting vehicles two years starting in January this year. The public would like more, of course. We’re going to bi-annual inspections for 1992 and newer years, and 1991 and older vehicles will remain having annual inspections. We’re making systems changes with ICBC, the insurance corporation in BC, to prevent skipping of inspection. We have people that stretch their inspection as long as they possibly can which is remarkably long, and we’re looking at those who re-register their vehicle in an adjacent area that doesn’t require inspections, which only undermines the program.

The road ahead

The impact of these changes will be defining our annual test volumes (about 650,000 by 2005 or 2006) and we’ll have effectively very few vehicles doing the ASM test at that point (almost everyone will be doing the IM 240 tests). The failure rate will double or more, and it may completely replace the tailpipe test. We’re going to be collecting data via the Web. If you’re a certified shop in AirCare II, you’ll have to have a computer, an Internet connection, and we will be collecting information online. Repair costs will go up. Initial pass will only be good for one year, so it will be an incentive for people to get their vehicle fully repaired.

And we also want to see if we can do something with the test fee. We want to encourage people to go to certified shops where they have the right training and the right equipment to fix the vehicle. But we’re going to make those shops pay a fee. That’s part of our auditing and monitoring and those shops will have to pay for that. We’re also going to be doing programs on effectiveness monitoring, we have to be able to tell people that they’re getting their money’s worth. We need to be able to monitor that to do the most honest job we can.

The road ahead is promising in many ways. After 2006 it will be very difficult to justify a central testing network. We should have a low failure rate of a few technology vehicles dominating the fleet. It’s very unlikely that it would be practical to make those vehicles go through testing, even on a bi-annual basis. And what happens, of course, is you reduce the number of vehicles that need to be tested, your cost per test skyrocket because your costs for the network are still large, and you have to spread them over a smaller number of vehicles. Emissions for new vehicles are approaching zero provided that nothing is wrong, and they don’t seem to go wrong for a very long time. Fewer onboard diagnostics are likely to replace tailpipe emissions inspections, although something still has to be done for the older technology vehicles as long as they remain in the fleet. SSGM