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California’s failing smog check

Today I am angry, sad, frustrated, disillusioned and possibly significantly poorer. A calamity is being visited on me by something I believed in, supported, and willingly paid for, but which has veered so far from its original good intentions as to be unrecognisable.

My car won’t pass smog check.

It’s a twelve-year-old Subaru Forester, a frugal four-cylinder workhorse that has faithfully transported me and my family 140,000 miles all over the American West, to see the wonders of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion, the High Sierra, the redwood forests and the deserts. I’ve maintained it scrupulously, laying out thousands for new tyres, axles, brakes, and steering. My mechanic says it runs as cleanly as a whistle. Knowing it will likely go another 140,000 miles, I was planning to pass it on to my daughter, now sixteen and driving age.

Smog tests now rely on diagnostics, so if a car fails because the sensor is faulty… the car is effectively scrap

But it may have to be scrapped, thanks to a regulatory system that for decades was one of the world’s biggest environmental success stories and achieved its goals while fostering technological innovations that spread across the world. Today, California’s smog system appears only to benefit organised crime, the rogue global mining industry, and ideologues who denounce environmental regulation.

Back in 1970, clean air laws helped clear acrid skies across the US – nowhere more so than in Los Angeles, where I live, which for much of the twentieth century suffered from smog so bad it blotted out the sky and ate through rubber. LA adopted its own clean air regulations years before the state of California or the US government, because its air was so bad that large sectors of the business community, namely real estate and tourism, demanded government action. Regulators first went after the low-hanging fruit: soot and sulphur from smokestacks, evaporation from leaky petrol storage tanks, and lead in petrol, which causes learning disabilities and even brain damage in children. Then they demanded carmakers clean up their act, requiring crankcase “blowby” gases be reburned instead of blown out of the tailpipe, and forcing a recalcitrant auto industry to install catalytic converters, which reduce toxic exhaust gases using precious metals including platinum, palladium and rhodium. Cars had to pass a biannual smog check to be registered. Refiners were made to tweak fuel formulations to burn cleaner. More recently, California’s low- and zero-emissions mandates forced the development of the electric car industry – witness home-grown Tesla, a direct response to the market created by the regs.

The results have been spectacular: in LA now you can see the snowcapped winter mountains from twenty miles away, whereas in the 1960s the hills two blocks from Sunset Boulevard disappeared behind brown gauze. (Breakneck growth of course – more people driving more vehicles more miles through more sprawl – never stopped eroding the gains even as they were won, but that’s another story.)

Clean air regs also cleaned up industry, not only by reducing emissions but also by pushing dirty manufacturers to relocate overseas, where regs are lacking or local authorities are easily bought off. While North American and European skies brightened, others were fouled. Inevitably, the pollution came right back to us, as the endless stuff we buy is pushed across the seas by pollutant ships, then onwards to our front doors by dirty trains, lorries and vans.

This return of unregulated pollution isn’t ironic. It’s a case of unintended consequences, of good intentions foundering on a complex world in which regulators control only so much and can see only so many chess moves ahead. Too often, regulations that succeed at first end up creating more problems than they solve.

Smog check used to mean putting the car on rollers, revving her up and measuring what came out of the tailpipe. If it was clean enough for your make, model and year, you passed. Mechanics and customisers have various means for balancing horsepower and combustion and could choose the best combination or come up with new devices to do things better. California’s cutting-edge engineering and hot rod communities – which overlap – contributed a long string of innovations that made cars not just more powerful but also cleaner and more efficient.

Then the state government decided to ignore the physical exhaust pipe and rely instead on virtual diagnostics – plugging a computer in to query the digital systems, components, and embedded sensors that modern cars bristle with. Hopefully, the diagnostic result quickly identifies what is wrong with an ailing auto – perhaps a faulty fuel injector – and the part can be replaced. But sometimes the indicated problem is actually with the sensor or the software. Unlike auto parts, software in cars until very recently wasn’t designed to be updated or replaced. (Tesla has thrived in part by being unusually good at software.)

My mechanic tells me multiple horror stories about cars that have “ghost” diagnostic codes that can’t be fixed. Such as the Toyota Camry year with a transmission warning light that, even when a brand-new transmission is installed, refuses to go out. If it can’t pass the smog test, the car is effectively scrap, because it can’t be legally registered, insured and driven. He grimaces as he counts off several similar examples, while I wince at the implications for me.

My Subaru has a check-engine light that corresponds to a code indicating a catalytic converter that’s possibly faulty – but possibly not. Discovering the cause will cost hundreds of dollars. If it is a fault, the cost to replace it will be nearly $4500 for the part alone, and the total could be as much as the car’s market value. This is because catalytic converters are caught up in a global spiral of unintended consequences. As more of the world adopts emissions standards for cars and trucks, demand for them has spiked, and with it the price. The rare metals used to make them are indispensable for making the things we need for an electrified world to ward off global warming – batteries, circuitry, and so on – driving the price yet higher. (I won’t even discuss the supply side’s problems: of mining, pollution, labour issues, China’s monopolies on supplies and refining, and so on.)

Criminals have taken note, so professional crews now steal converters off parked cars in broad daylight. This is true across the UK as well as in California and the sixteen other US states that follow its strict emissions rules. Police do little or nothing to stop the pillage. Meantime, waiting lists for new converters run into weeks or months, during which time the car can’t legally be driven, and when they do become available, they cost thousands. The burden of all this of course falls heaviest on working people, who rely on their cars – often old and least likely to pass smog tests without costly repairs – to get to work in a society that has largely disinvested in public transport.

The first catalytic converters were made in France in the late nineteenth century. In 1930, a French engineer named Eugene Houdry, who had invented the catalytic cracking techniques that underlie modern oil refining, moved to the US to be near the fast-evolving industry. He continued to invent catalytics for emerging industrial uses like smokestacks and forklifts, and then, learning of the smog problem in LA, turned his attention to cars, receiving US patent 2,742,437 in 1956 for an exhaust emissions system for petrol engines. His innovations were the key that allowed regulators to unlock the tailpipe problem.

Today, people with such skills can’t apply them to finding new ways to improve the emissions of older cars, because the regulatory bureaucracy no longer measures reality, but instead interfaces with it at several removes in a metaverse of software referencing software referencing software. And, as is the case with iPhones and other products, the original factory software cannot be modified or improved. The pathway of crowd-sourced innovation has been blocked and replaced with a rigid rule of proprietary codes that is incapable of flexibility or change in the face of real-world complexity and unintended consequences.

Wish me luck with my Subaru.

Wade Graham is an author, environmentalist and academic. He lives in LA

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Columns, July 2023, Walden

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