‘They can’t tell you you’re going to fail. He has to run it’

Peggy Brown, a retired poker dealer whom I’ve known for some years as an upstanding and truthful sort, writes in that her 2003 Dodge Neon was in storage for nine months while she was out of state.

When she got back, “I needed to get it re-registered and get new plates for it.”

She stood in line at the DMV for her temporary permit so she could drive it out for a new smog check. So far so good. But then the battery died.

“A jump start got it running long enough to get it to Pep Boys for a replacement, $98 installed. Now we’re in business, right? Wrong.

“Drove a while to warm up the engine, then stopped at Smog Busters, 3707 E. Flamingo. I told the attendant that I had just had the battery replaced, and that I was getting the smog check done so I could re-register my car. He said nothing, but proceeded with the test.

“Surprise! Overall Test Result: ‘Not completed.’ Why? As best I could understand it the car’s computer doesn’t respond correctly because it lost its settings, or something like that, when the battery was disconnected or dead. Cost: $6.99.

“I asked him what had to be done to fix the problem, and he told me I should go to DMV to get instructions for doing something called ‘drive cycles’ and that I would have to drive the car a certain way in order to get the computer to reset. When I asked what could cause the problem, he said, ‘Replacing the battery would do that, because power was disconnected from the car’s computer.’ I asked him why he didn’t tell me that at first,” — Mrs. Brown had told the smog technician the battery had just been replaced, remember — “and he just sort of shrugged.”

“Oh well. Trip Number two back to DMV. At the emission station behind the DMV building, we were told they knew exactly what the situation was, and went to their computer and printed out two pages of very detailed ‘drive cycle’ instructions. Along with them, he informed me that it was highly unlikely that I would be able to do the drive cycles myself, and handed me a printed list (10 pages, about 150 listings) of places I could go to get it done by a ‘professional.’

“Great. In talking with the man at DMV, I asked him why nobody had let me know about this (the people who changed the battery, or at least the guy at Smog Busters, so we wouldn’t have had to make a completely wasted trip to get a smog check, and pay for it to boot.) His answer? “The way the law is written, he isn’t allowed to ‘communicate’ with you.” By this time, I was getting angry.

“To get the flavor of the drive cycle instructions, here’s an excerpt. They’re amazing. Both pages of instructions are to be performed twice:

“ ‘2003 Dodge Neon: SXT 2.0L 132HP … Notes: 1. This drive cycle is designed to simulate highway driving. 2. When instructed, vary speed smoothly. …

“ ‘STEPS: 1. Start the engine. Idle for 20 seconds. 2. Accelerate at part throttle to 30 mph. Cruise at 20-30 mph for 2 minutes. Stop the vehicle; idle for 40 seconds.

“ ‘3. Accelerate at part throttle to 25 mph in 15 seconds. Cruise at 17-25 mph for 15 seconds. Accelerate to 40 mph. Cruise at 40-56 mph for 2 minutes. Decelerate to 0. Idle for 15 seconds. 4. Accelerate at part throttle 28-36 mph for 25 seconds. Decelerate to 0 in 15 seconds. Idle for 6 seconds. …’

“And it goes for 15 such steps on each of 2 pages, all to be done twice.”

“I went home and began calling some of the places listed (car dealerships, repair shops, etc.) and was told by each one that it would cost ‘about $100 to get it done.’ ”

Mrs. Brown provided me with that printout, on DMV letterhead. On it are her handwritten notes. One garage wanted $98, a seconds wanted $100, etc.

“So now I’m getting really angry,” Mrs. Brown concludes. “I’m fuming. What kind of rip-off is this? All this just because my battery needed to be replaced? What’s going on? What idiocy has the legislature concocted now, and for whose benefit? Just what poor people need in times of economic stress, another booby trap set for unsuspecting motorists whose batteries wear out.

“What devastating problem does this stupid law solve, anyway? Why should it cost me all this time and money and hassle to replace a battery in my car?”

I called the DMV to find out.

“That’s true that the way the law is written they” (the licensed smog check technicians) “can’t tell you not to bother doing the smog check, the EPA has mandated it that way, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a record of the failure rate,” a DMV spokesman confirmed when I called last week.
The first DMV spokesman I reached initially said “That’s like half true. You do have to drive it around to get the computer to re-set. … But you don’t have to pay a professional driver, I’m sorry, that’s some kind of scam.”

Maybe. But “scam” or not, once I got DMV Emissions Training Officer Hal Greene on the phone Wednesday, he pretty much confirmed Mrs. Brown’s entire account.

“Yes, we do give out that list, the DMV was following procedure here, and we recommend you take it to a qualified technician who knows how to run those drive cycles.”

But as it turns out, Mrs. Brown never did that. She drove the car around for a couple hours, and then took it to an AAMCO transmission shop managed by an acquaintance of hers. They hooked up their monitor to the car’s onboard computer and told her, “It’s fine; it’ll pass.” Which it promptly did. No “professional driver.” No following any intricate set of “drive cycles” that would be likely to get you rear-ended in a hurry.

That information didn’t faze Mr. Greene.

“The easiest ones to (reset) are domestic cars, and they tend to be the lowest priced cars,” Mr. Greene explained. “It’s on-board diagnostics. On vehicles ’96 and above the vehicle is testing 11 major systems of the emission system while it’s driving down the road under real driving conditions — it’s about 95 percent better than tailpipe testing. The vehicle will notice (any) change that would increase emissions by one and a half times normal. … We download the information that the vehicle already has on itself.”

But “The technician doesn’t know for sure it won’t pass,” Mr. Greene insists. “Some early model cars just have five monitors to check, and three of them trip when you turn the key, and we’ll let it pass with just those three engaged. But yes, state law does require them to run the test, they can’t tell you you’re going to fail. He has to run it.”

The onboard diagnostic computer is better than the old tailpipe emissions check, Mr. Greene insists, because the onboard computer system allows problems to be spotted “before it costs more money to fix. So in point of fact to fix an OBD2 vehicle is less expensive than to wait till it shows up as a tailpipe problem.”

Yeah. But they’re still going to charge you for a useless smog check even if you mention you’ve just changed your battery. And they’re still going to tell you down at the DMV that you’re not going to be able to run through those complicated “drive cycles” all by yourself — you’d better call one of these 150 licensed garages and have a “professional technician” do it for $100.

And it’s still true that Mrs. Brown didn’t spend that hundred bucks. She just drove her car around for a couple of hours, at which point it passed its second smog check with flying colors.

But how many gullible folks don’t know a friendly transmission shop manager who’ll hook up their car for free and tell them “It’ll pass?” How many folks — in these tough times — are out the extra hundred bucks because they’ve been told “only a professional” can get their “on board computers” to turn themselves back on?

One Comment to “‘They can’t tell you you’re going to fail. He has to run it’”

  1. Crafty Hunter Says:

    As life in general grows more complex, the opportunities to skim from the wallets of victims will correspondingly grow more varied. This is a deep problem. It is interesting to contemplate whether humanity has already in developed countries passed the point of no return.

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