Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2006   by Andrew Ross

Emissions Testing in Transition

B.C.'s AirCare emissions testing program is on the verge of change that will have far-reaching effects.

After nearly 15 years of operation, one might reasonably expect that Canada’s oldest emissions testing program would have settled into some sense of normalcy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

On the eve of the launch of Phase III of the program, significant changes are taking place in the testing regimen that will significantly change both the type of testing being done and the number of cars required to undergo the test.

And, just as when B.C.’s Lower Mainland emissions testing program debuted in 1991, politics are trumping technical concerns at every turn.

The changes concern testing on older vehicles and the evolution of vehicle emissions systems, and more specifically, the increasing volume of cars on the road equipped with second generation on-board diagnostics. OBD II-equipped vehicles (those built in 1996 and later) have the ability to self-diagnose, so these cars won’t be required to undergo the same type of drive-cycle testing as previous generation vehicles.

The new testing structure, scheduled to begin phase-in this September, would also push out the minimum age of vehicles to be tested to seven years from three.

On the face of it, that sounds pretty simple, and a real boon for the consumer. Remove the newer vehicles with the lowest failure rate, about 3%, from the testing lanes and speed service for those who remain. However, the extension of the testing regimen to vehicles seven years old and older was a full two years longer than the TransLink group, which manages the program, had proposed. This alone is expected to have a dramatic effect on the financial viability of the program as it stands now.

Estimates put the impact of the change at 300,000 fewer cars being tested, down from 900,000 under the current three-year exemption. This also means lower testing fee revenues for the program, which at $47 a pop for those younger vehicles adds up to some $14 million.

Combined with the anticipated move to OBD II scanning in place of actual emission testing in 2007, the change is expected to have a dramatic effect on the program.

“For us, it means we have to go back to the contractor and ask what they want to do,” says Sam Loo, manager of operations for AirCare, who also has the distinction of having been with the program since day one.

“If you’re just looking at a third fewer vehicles, you don’t need as many inspection centres. Theoretically, a third of the 12 centres could go. From their standpoint, how many of their staff are they going to cut?”

Loo says that the changes are much more dramatic than the modifications proposed by the AirCare management group, and are not readily appreciated even by those employed within the program.

When he discussed the impact of the changes with other staffers within the program, he says, their reaction was that it was not that significant a change. He disagrees. He says it will cost jobs and create inconvenience for consumers due to test centre and check lane closures.

And then there is the move to OBD II-based testing that the repair sector will have to deal with starting in 2007. Launching into a new era of testing, requiring new diagnostic tools and procedures, is a bit like starting all over again. He says it’s not going to be easy for technicians used to dealing with the older diagnostic technologies and methods.

“The shops that have been in the business from the early part of the program seem to understand the diagnostics. As you go along and have newer shops coming onstream, perhaps they are overwhelmed. Perhaps a technician may lack training and may need to be able to implement new information very quickly.”

Loo says that while the types of questions coming in to the tech support line have changed over the years, more experienced technicians continue to be those who call when they’re stuck, while those with less experience call to ask where to begin.

“There is still a need among technicians to understand the basics.

“I guess with the industry and with the automotive trade, a lot of it is experiential learning. It can also have some downsides to it. You have a technician who worked on a vehicle last week and changed this, this, and this, and this week he will change the same three things. That is the downside of using experience to form the basis for work instead of detailed diagnostics.”

He offers as an example a vehicle that has failed due to a P0141 fault, indicating a fault with the heated O2 sensor circuit.

“The technician will scan for the codes and ask what the next step is. In OBD I, the first thing they told you to do was to erase the code and see if it comes back. In OBD II you don’t want to erase the code. That is a fundamental difference. If you have an OBD II-equipped vehicle and clear all the codes, you have just lost all of your data. With the codes cleared, the technician has no basis for diagnostics.”

And, as experienced technicians know, one trouble code may very well be masking another. And then there is the customer relations part of the equation.

Once a repair is effected, that trouble code may still be triggering a “Check Engine” light, unless the technician resets the monitor.

“Maybe it will set right away, maybe it won’t. What happens if it doesn’t?” asks Loo. “If it doesn’t, you end up with an unhappy customer. Some of the drive cycles are so onerous, you’re not going to get it done right away. The drive cycle itself might take 20 minutes to do, but you have to find a place to do that. It may be to drive up to 45 miles per hour, slow to 20 and then, back up to 55. Where are you going to do that?”

He says that he is working on a project to test OBD II vehicles, clear the codes and then run an IM 240 test to see if that will reset the monitor. He should have an answer on that front by the end of April.

He adds that getting through these issues is tough enough when you can control the testing, as in AirCare’s centralized system. He expects that once Ontario’s Drive Clean moves to OBD II testing, where certified independent shops also do the testing, the situation could get very sticky indeed.

“Then you’re going to have a problem where a car leaves with all the trouble code lights off, only to have them come on during the retest.

“I can guarantee to you that some technicians will blame the testing, not the repairs. Those are the issues that we are trying to anticipate, but in B.C. at least, you cannot force the repair centre to set the monitor for you. These are issues that you want to deal with before they become a reality.”

It certainly adds up to some potential quagmires for the repair sector, and for AirCare, and that isn’t even considering the current state of access to tools and information within the Canadian market.

“Right now in our program, we require [service providers] to have the generic OBD scan tools. However, in Canada, although we harmonized emissions [standards] with the U.S., the jury is still out on whether manufacturers must provide the information [as they do in the U.S.]. That particular ruling is still in a confused state in Canada.”

He says that he has already approached vehicle manufacturers with his concerns.

“I have not even got ‘boo’ from them. Not even an acknowledgement that this is their fight. And that is going to be a problem.”

He doesn’t let the tool manufacturers off the hook either, as he says they want too much money for the enhanced tools.

“I think that this is an issue that the industry is really going to face. We are going to have to deal with it. Are we going to make them buy the advanced tool and why?

“This next phase of the program is going to be very interesting.”

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