After many years of bureaucratic efforts to avoid discussion of the core defects in I/M (inspection/maintenance) vehicle emissions-testing programs, the long-awaited report on the effectiveness of California's I/M (Smog Check II) program was released in draft form early this month by Joel Schwartz, executive officer of the California I/M Review Committee.

The Review Committee, originally created in 1984, was changed in 1993 to “give it greater independence from the agencies directly responsible for managing the (I/M) program.”

The report breathes long-needed reality into the issue by calling a spade a spade. The key points:

  • I/M achieves much less than claimed and the new calculated benefits may have to be further reduced when comprehensive measurements are made of on-the-road vehicle emissions. Preliminary measurements indicate that repair benefits are totally lost within a year and that oxides of nitrogen (NOx) repair benefits are lost within three months.

  • The major liability falls on “owners of older cars and those with lower incomes,” and many of these vehicles are not adequately repaired. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, has forced states into I/M programs, but at the same time put a cap on repair bills. The report, in effect, puts it up to the state to change this policy if it wants to optimize I/M effectiveness — i.e, paint or get off the ladder.

  • The report says, “emissions reductions cost about $7,300 to $15,000 per ton for 1974 to 1984 model-year vehicles and $49,000 to $122,000 per ton for 1992 and newer vehicles,” and “$300,000 or more per ton for 1996 and newer vehicles.”

The study calculates these cost-effectiveness values based on the low figure of only $8.71 per hour for motorist time and expense to get vehicles tested and repaired; the values apparently do not reflect the indicated repair deterioration factor (see WEVTU — May 15, '99, p.7).

The report suggests that both I/M effectiveness and I/M cost-effectiveness could be improved by use of remote sensing to first identify on-the-road high-emitters, some of which are not identified with scheduled tests; and second, save money by canceling scheduled testing of low-emitters. Independent researchers have recommended this general approach for many years.

WEVTU observes that the cost-effectiveness values ranging from $7,300 to $300,000 per ton in the California report can be compared with $1,000 to $1,700 per ton to reduce ozone-related emissions from industrial boilers that impact Chicago air quality. This so-called “low-hanging fruit” has not been harvested for political, rather than air-quality reasons.

The report, however, does not deal with the long-neglected question of how to differentiate between out-of-warranty emissions problems caused by owner abuse and neglect, versus causes over which owners effectively have no control.

Considering California's influence on air-quality thinking, its I/M Review Committee report surely will give other states some hard facts and hard decisions to consider. The EPA itself already has called for a return of I/M to “what makes sense.” It's a question of how much money will continue to be wasted on massive testing of low-emitting vehicles — while ignoring the real-world cost of truly effective, high-tech repair and the fast-growing problem low-income motorists face with their hand-me-down, federally mandated vehicles.