Different people will have different opinions on when the Golden Age of Automobiles might have been. Some will argue for the 1950s, when style was everything; some for the late 1960s, the era of muscle cars; there are cases to be made for just about every period when they weren't making the Chevrolet Vega. And there are times when I think we've just finished it: before the bottom dropped out of the market, we had a veritable automotive Shangri-La, when even mediocre cars were still pretty decent, when mere family sedans offered performance you didn't see in sports cars not so long ago. (A workaday V-6 Camry can dust any of the original Taurus SHOs.) My own car, when it was new ten years ago, claimed to be the most powerful car in its class; now you have to have at least 30 hp more than that to bring up the rear in a comparison test. What's more, all of this power has come with no increase in pollutants: modern engine-control systems keep close tabs on everything going on, and if emissions nudge upward so much as a hair, a warning light appears on the dash.

And that's the one thing which keeps this era from being an automotive Golden Age: an irritating little bulb that tells you nothing other than that something is wrong.

It didn't have to be that way, of course. But the state of California was involved, and California, over the years, has had a knack for taking reasonable ideas and making them unreasonable, or worse. The California Air Resources Board, in fact, proposed the original standard for OBD II — the letters stand for "On-Board Diagnostics" — in 1989, and mandated that all automakers comply with it by 1996. The Feds adopted basically the same standard, on essentially the same timetable, in the Clean Air Act in 1990.

The idea was sensible enough: provide the car with enough hardware to monitor its emissions, compare them to baseline, and send up a warning when things get out of whack. Unfortunately, the warning system is designed to give the motorist as little information as possible: you get a light on the dash, with two levels of severity — either it's blinking or it's not — and nothing more. The idea, of course, is that you'll take the vehicle to a Qualified Service Technician, who will then plug in the appropriate black box, decipher what's stored in the car's computer, and make the judgment call. After all, mere drivers can't be expected to know how these things work.

And as a shade-tree mechanic, I'm somewhere on the poor-to-fair continuum. I admit it. But I always resent the sort of thinking that says that people need to be protected from information. What would it cost to get a five-character readout on the dash that shows the actual code involved? Six, seven dollars? It's a thirty-thousand-dollar car, fercrissake. At least I'd have some idea whether I'm facing a $100 repair or a $1000 repair, a matter of great interest when I don't have $1000 to spare, which I don't.

But no. I have to go somewhere and have them pull codes, or spend some unholy sum on a device that will actually pull codes for me but won't let me reset them if by some fluke I manage to fix things. (Because, y'know, I'm not a Qualified Service Technician.) Since all this is contained in the Federal Clean Air Act, I consider it an unfunded Federal mandate, and I believe the government should be required to reimburse me for any necessary testing, or at the very least permit it to be listed as a deduction on my tax return. Needless to say, I'm not holding my breath.

The Vent

  7 December 2009

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 Copyright © 2009 by Charles G. Hill