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Smog Program Keeps the Car Makers Honest

June 15, 1989|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | Times Urban Affairs Writer

Albina Vannucci found this incredible offer in her mail one day last November: $50 cash, a free tank of gas, a wash, free repairs and a loan car. All for giving her 1986 Dodge Colt to a state agency for a few days of smog tests.

A week later, Vannucci's Colt came home with a brand new exhaust manifold. The California testing program--unique among states--had uncovered cracks in the original, factory-installed equipment.

"I thought it was a good deal," said Vannucci, of Whittier. "I got to get my car checked over for free."

At a cost of $1.2 million a year, the state pays two Orange County firms to procure vehicles such as Vannucci's Colt for testing. They mail thousands of letters each month to owners throughout Southern California, soliciting participation.

Unlike the familiar annual smog checks performed by gas stations for auto registration renewals, which catch only gross polluters, the testing program is sophisticated enough to determine whether smog control devices are living up to manufacturer's predictions of reliability and effectiveness.

Most auto makers are cooperative when informed that one of their engine groups has failed, according to state officials.

"We have engineers on site when these programs (tests) are run, primarily because we want to make sure that the conclusions reached are correct," said Doug Berens, Ford Motor Co.'s director of compliance testing.

"All in all, they (the Air Resources Board) do a fairly decent job. . . . We have had situations where we've had a component failure. The quality of the part just wasn't there. It was not built to be robust enough. You learn things about your products that you're not always proud of, and then we fix it as quickly as we can."

If a manufacturer does not cooperate, the board can order a recall. It can seek a court order if a manufacturer refuses to comply. So far, however, no manufacturer has refused, according to the board.

"Surprisingly, the manufacturers with the worst record tend to be the most cooperative," said Michael W. Carter, the board's compliance testing program manager. "We're able to negotiate voluntary recalls, where necessary. . . . The program has led, I think, to a major benefit in the quality of Southern California's air."

Program Praised

State officials say the program is well worth the money, especially now that local government agencies are under pressure to step up the war against air pollution. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, for example, recently adopted goals that include car-pooling and cleaner fuels for everything from automobiles to dry-cleaning businesses. The reason is simple: Southern California still does not meet federal clean air standards.

Similar tests are conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, primarily on vehicles in the Washington, D.C. area. State officials share information with the EPA, resulting in some recalls of vehicles nationwide instead of merely those registered in California.

"California has a very good program," said Richard D. Wilson, director of the EPA's Office of Mobile Sources. "It's been very helpful to have California do their own program. They give us leads, and sometimes they get leads from us. They do a very good job."

And environmentalists approve of the board's testing programs, according to John White, a Sacramento-based lobbyist for both the Sierra Club and the Air Resources Board. California's tests are "better than anyone else's, including the EPA's," White said.

Sent for Testing

Once volunteered by their owners, the cars and trucks in the California testing programs are sent either to the Air Resources Board's Haagen-Smit Laboratory in El Monte for engine research, or to labs owned by Automated Custom Systems Inc. of Orange and Automotive Testing Development Inc. of Huntington Beach.

The two private firms, under contract with the state, test vehicles to determine their level of compliance with state rules on emissions of pollutants.

Since 1983, when the little-known testing programs began, about 1,000 Southern California residents have loaned their cars and trucks, resulting in costly recalls for auto makers--300,000 vehicles in 1988 alone.

Overall, 16 engine types or 50% of the 32 tested in 1988 for "in-use compliance" with state regulations failed, either because they were spewing out too much pollution or because their emission control systems were breaking down and did not meet California's durability standards. From 1986 to 1988, the tests triggered 12 recalls.

Last year, partly as a result of earlier testing, 13 engine types involving thousands of cars were scheduled for parts replacements, through recalls, including five for faulty catalytic converters, two for faulty fuel injectors, four for manifolds and two for computer chips.

Suspect Vehicles

That may seem like a lot of failures. But state officials caution that the test sample is biased--the program targets mostly vehicles that are already suspect.

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