Smog stations across California are transitioning from "old-fashioned" testing to a new approach that's meant to be faster, save consumers money and ensure more reliable inspections for the environment.
The new smog testing requirements are the result of a law that went into effect in October 2010. The Air Resources Board and the Bureau of Automotive Repair sponsored the legislation after an independent review of the smog check program revealed that 19 percent of vehicles that had passed station inspections subsequently failed emissions audits conducted by state officials.
Rather than testing a vehicle's tailpipe for emissions, technicians will connect the onboard diagnostic computer to a sensor that will perform the test in just a few minutes. Onboard diagnostic computers are installed in all vehicles manufactured since 1996.
Some smog stations owners support the change, but not all of them.
It's a "job killer," said Warren Sharp, owner of Smogie's Smog Shop in Ventura."I won't need to hire near as many people."
But John Russell, owner of Russell's Automotive in Thousand Oaks, is pleased with the new testing program, even if it means some shops will make less money and might go out of business.
"They need to. There's too many of them," he said, referring to the number of smog stations.
The quicker tests are also expected to save consumers money.
"The price should be coming down substantially," said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs. He wouldn't approximate how much. He said the free market will have to determine the price.
Sharp estimates the new tests will be $20 to $30, compared with the $50 to $60 his shop currently charges to test regular, unleaded gasoline vehicles. The potential loss of revenue is a concern to him.
Vehicles with model years 2000 or newer will be tested in the new way. Older vehicles and those that have excessive emissions will still undergo tailpipe inspections, but the state will allow only the highest-performing stations to perform the tests.
The Department of Motor Vehicles will refer drivers to STAR-certified stations when they renew their vehicle registration. Consumers can search for STAR-certified stations on the California Bureau of Automotive Repair's website.
STAR replaces the Gold Shield Program, which was applicable only to test-and-repair stations. Both test-only and test-and-repair stations can apply for STAR-certification.
Smog stations can begin applying July 1 to be STAR-certified. The new program takes effect Jan. 1.
"The changes are designed to make sure that smog check stations are all performing at the rate that they need to be performing at," Heimerich said. "This gives us the ability to rate them and make sure they do fall within our requirements for performance."
At Smogie's Smog Shop in Ventura, Sharp objects to the reliance on onboard diagnostics computers. He believes they are not 100 percent accurate.
Zack Jordan, a smog test technician with Auto Masters in Ventura, agrees.
"Onboard diagnostics has holes in the program; that's one of the problems," he said. "The system is not perfected yet."
Jordan said the computer doesn't fail often but does "on some occasions."
But Russell of Russell's Automotive disagrees. He said there are few holes in the new technology.
"If the numbers are good in the computer there really shouldn't be a problem in the tailpipe," he said.
The state has confidence that the computers are just as accurate as the tailpipe tests, Heimerich said.
In California, the DMV notifies drivers through registration renewal forms when vehicles need to be smog tested. The program began in 1984 to identify high-emitting vehicles in need of repair.
Typically, vehicles must be tested every other renewal period. There are exceptions, such as for vehicles less than 6 years old. A full list of exceptions is available on the DMV's site.
If your vehicle fails its smog test, you won't be able to register until you repair it, retest and pass the inspection.
In advance of the changes, the Bureau of Automotive Repair has conducted 22 workshops around the state and worked with people in the smog check industry to get the new program up and running.
In a letter sent in March to smog check station owners and inspectors, Bureau of Automotive Repair Chief John Wallauch wrote that by and large, the feedback from the industry has been positive.
"Most see the advantages of the STAR Program for stations and inspectors, and how the program will help protect them from the guy down the street who always passes cars that I fail.'"
Beginning in January, motorists will be able to find STAR-certified stations at http://smogcheck.ca.gov/PubWebQuery/station/stationlist.aspx.
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