Ontario’s Drive Clean emissions reduction initiative is about to undergo a major change into a two-pronged program. As of January 1, 2013, participating Drive Clean test facilities (DCFs) will be required to offer Onboard Diagnostics (OBD)-based emissions tests for newer model cars and will have the option to offer two-speed idle (TSI) tests for the quickly shrinking population of older models (1988 to 1997 inclusive). The new tests will replace the dynamometer-based testing that has been the cornerstone of the program since its inception in 1999.
The update reflects the fact that a critical mass of light duty vehicles now possesses sophisticated onboard self diagnostic monitoring and reporting systems, and is based on the view that these capabilities can and should be leveraged to provide a new generation of more effective and sensitive emissions assessments.
“We believe the new testing technology that will be used will reduce emissions by 20 per cent over the current program,” says Kate Jordan, a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, which has overall responsibility for the Drive Clean program. Since the changes were announced, the ministry has been circulating information to DCFs so that they can decide whether to get onboard with the new tests. At press time, Jordan said, around 50 per cent – approximately 1,000 shops – had opted to stay on with the program, and the ministry was maintaining consultations, including education and outreach programs, to make sure undecided shops had enough information to make an informed decision.
“Our current equipment hasn’t been updated in 13 years, and we believe it’s time,” Jordan says. The Drive Clean office says that it has been receiving feedback from DCFs that the old Ontario test Unit (OTU) equipment is more and more expensive to maintain and needs more frequent repairs. Jordan also says that the new tests will be faster for the consumer, and also more accurate than the previous tailpipe emissions test.
The new OTU that will be used for the tests has been custom-built to Ontario specifications in a modular design that allows participating shops to configure the unit for combinations of repair only, OBD, TSI gas analysis and heavy duty diesel testing. The unit employs web-based software that means it’s always connected, and upload and download of data will be quicker. The unit can also be used for training and real-time technical assistance via teleconference, as long as a high-speed Internet connection is available.
When they purchase the new OTU, DCFs will be required to sign a mandatory Equipment Purchase and Maintenance Agreement with Parsons Canada Ltd., a private company that provides and maintains the equipment under contract to the government of Ontario. As of January 1, 2013, the current OTU will be replaced. Parsons will dispose of the old units for a fixed fee.
Equipment purchase and lease prices are on a sliding scale, depending on the configuration the DCF opts for. A basic selection is given below, although the full scheme offers many more combinations.
In addition to the up-front purchase price, DCFs will also be required to pay a monthly maintenance fee starting in January. The fee schedule provided by the Drive Clean office is fairly complex, reflecting the wide range of possible testing and repair combinations that DCFs can choose from. Monthly maintenance fees for light vehicle tests start at $170 for repair only and $172 for OBD-only test and repair, and reach $322 for added heavy duty gas and diesel test-only and test and repair accreditations. Parsons says that the fixed maintenance fees will protect DCFs from the cost of unexpected repairs. There are no plans to change the maximum test fees chargeable to light-duty vehicle users, Parsons says.
Only DCFs that are accredited currently are eligible to apply for the modernized program, which will be opened to all interested businesses in January. The new performance contract mandates that DCFs provide Drive Clean program services until June 30, 2018, which is the term of the service contract between Parsons and the province. Purchase and lease costs, maintenance fees and training costs will remain the same over the period of the agreement.
Until the end of December, vehicles are only required to meet current dynamometer tailpipe emissions standards. Many DCFs will likely have the new OTU before the switchover, but if a customer’s car fails an OBD test before then the failure won’t count, and only a dynamometer fail will require remedial action. However, an OBD test failure before January will mean that the car will have to be re-tested on the dynamometer.
Eli Melnick, owner of Toronto’s Start Auto Electric, has been involved with the Drive Clean program from its inception in May 1999. That’s when he became part of the Drive Clean Focus Group, a group of DCF owners who provide input and recommendations to the program. As part of the Drive Clean beta test program, Start Auto Electric already has the new OTU on hand. Aside from gaining invaluable hands-on experience with the unit, Melnick and his team are also providing Drive Clean with information on how it can be improved for use in the field based on their experience.
There are a lot of considerations for shops to take into account before deciding whether to be part of the new Drive Clean program, Melnick says. “It’s a lot cheaper than the first phase of the program, but it’s still quite a bit of money. It’s not a money-maker.” The test fee is $35, one third of which goes to the government, so the shop sees a little over $22. Melnick cautions that participating shops will now have to explain to customers why they’re not getting a Drive Clean sticker when technically there’s nothing wrong with their car. “Once you find and fix a problem you have to run a vehicle for two or three days to get the monitors to run and make sure everything’s okay and the Check Engine light doesn’t come on.” Even if the problem has been fixed, the vehicle won’t pass the test right away.
Melnick believes that a lot of education and explaining will be required up front after the changes come into force to get the customers to understand the differences in procedure. “Yes, the test is quicker now, but explaining and dealing with a failure is going to be a lot more time intensive,” he says.
For Melnick, the new phase-in may well resemble the initial launch of Drive Clean in 1999, when all DCFs were new to the program and had problems with diagnosis, work piled up quickly, and customers and shops alike were confused about what was required. “There are a lot of issues ahead of us.”