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Emissions Check System Does Not Compute


Ever since the first emission controls were put on automobiles in the mid-1970s, the increasing complexity of the systems has driven up the cost of new cars. This year, they are also threatening to boost the cost of almost every repair part, according to the parts industry.

A recent lawsuit filed in federal court charges that California regulators and their new pollution rules are allowing auto makers to lock independent producers out of the $27-billion parts market.

After a new car's warranty expires, the least expensive way to get a car fixed is often with parts produced by independent manufacturers. That's part of the reason why getting a car fixed at a dealership can cost more than at an independent garage.

But manufacturers of so-called aftermarket car parts say new pollution monitoring systems will shut their low cost parts out of the consumer market. The dispute highlights the difficulty of cleaning the air without causing unfair hardships on consumers.

The issue revolves around a highly complex new pollution monitoring system required on all new model cars this year, known as on-board diagnostics generation two or OBD-II. With OBD-II, a central computer module monitors more than 200 critical functions for violations of emissions laws. If the emission system is not working perfectly, a check engine light will come on the dashboard and the violations will be electronically noted at the next mandated smog test.

The OBD-II system is so sensitive that some parts--even tires, water pumps and mufflers--could put a car out of compliance, industry experts contend.

In the past, emission compliance problems could be avoided by the ability of parts manufacturers to supply a new computer memory chip that would recalibrate the central computer.

But OBD-II computers are designed to be tamper-proof and auto makers are refusing to disclose the software programming that would allow independent parts producers to create their own calibrations, according to Frank Bohanan, director of technical affairs at the Washington-based Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Assn.

The lawsuit was brought by Bohanan's association and eight other industry groups. It is filed against the California Air Resources Board, the California Environmental Protection Agency and the federal EPA. Representatives for the government agencies declined comment for now.

As cars grow dependent on computers, it is becoming surprisingly common to recalibrate computers. General Motors is currently recalling a half million Cadillacs for computer recalibrations, for example.

* Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, DC 20006 or e-mail to

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