The California plan now approved by the full legislature (WEVTU — 15 June '99, p.2) to cut back on I/M testing of low emissions vehicles contains provisions that could signal additional changes in the I/M programs of other states who look to California for guidance.

Money saved by exempting many more vehicles than those four years old and newer from scheduled testing will be diverted to some extent to expanding current financial help to low-income people for emissions-related repairs beyond the levels in the current program. The new program, if approved by the governor, will authorize the state's Bureau of Auto Repair (BAR) to:

  • Set different co-payments for non-low-income motorists, at its discretion.

  • Raise the eligibility threshold for low-income motorists to 185% of poverty.

  • Allow the BAR to exceed the current state-share cost caps (for repair assistance) if, in its determination, the additional repair/payments are cost-effective.

A legislative staffer says that the new program currently is targeted at further exempting another five million vehicles from scheduled tests based on low emitter profiling.

This means that in the current program, of the approximately 14 million total vehicles in I/M areas, the tested vehicle group will be cut from 10 million (those over four years old) to about five million. Repair shops are expected to be upset at the loss of testing volume but will participate in more funded repair business.

The newly exempted five million will reflect profiling from existing tests and, in the future, increasingly from drive-by remote sensing. The intent is to screen vehicles for those least likely to represent a cost-effective return from scheduled testing. By subtraction this will define the vehicles with the best chances for cost-effective testing and repairs.

This brings into focus testimony before the house California Assembly Committee on Transportation in October 1996, by researcher Dr. Douglas Lawson. He testified that the California I/M program was then spending 80% of total related funds on testing and only 20% on repairs — and that 40% of repaired vehicle emissions were found to be higher after repairs.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has doggedly stuck to its I/M strategy of expensive testing a high percentage of vehicles and maintaining caps on repair costs that limit repair effectiveness, California, the only state with an independent I/M review committee, has pushed ahead on cost/effectiveness instead.

As an example of a typical EPA-driven I/M program, the three counties in northern Kentucky close to Cincinnati are scheduled to start their new program this fall based on the old idea of testing a high percentage of vehicles with a cap of only $75 on repairs of older vehicles and $200 on newer ones. Notwithstanding the low investment in repairs, the three counties are reportedly given credit by the EPA for reductions of 1,825 tons (1,656 t) of VOCs per year, which none of the available data suggests is even remotely possible. There are about 244,000 vehicles in the test area.

Kentucky's I/M program performance is based on the obsolete Mobile5 data without adjustment for repair deterioration and reportedly assumes all vehicles that fail the initial test are fixed. In Chicago, for instance, about 40% of vehicles that fail the initial test either disappear or fail a subsequent test.

At presstime, Jason Grumet and Drew Kodjak, speaking for an association of eight Northeast states in a published rebuttal to USA Today's editorial on June 24, acknowledged that the states and the EPA are now focused on vehicles “most likely to need repairs.”

An independent researcher says that use of the best available remote sensing technology could reduce by over 90% the number of vehicles routinely tested.