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‘Check engine’ light on? Expect to fail new Drive Clean test

Published December 3, 2012
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The dyno is about to go the way of the dinosaur. In January, Drive Clean will declare the current dynamometer test extinct.

In its place will be an OBD (On-Board Diagnostics) protocol, where a government-approved test unit plugs in to communicate directly with your vehicle’s on-board computer, explains Drive Clean expert Eli Melnick of Start Auto Electric in Toronto.

While driving, your vehicle’s computer performs a continuous series of self-tests of its emissions systems.  If anything is amiss, the computer illuminates the “check engine” light.

Drive Clean’s new OBD test looks at the status of the computer’s self-checks to determine whether the vehicle is an emissions pass or fail.  Under the new test, any vehicle with the “check engine” light on will fail.

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If drivers attempt to clear the “check engine” light by disconnecting the battery or by using a scan tool, the vehicle will still fail.  This is because it could take several days of combined city and highway driving to allow the computer to complete its self tests (known as Monitors).

Vehicles with Monitors that are “not ready” will fail the new test.  However, 1998-2000 model-year vehicles are permitted two Monitors to be “not ready,” and 2001 and newer models are allowed one Monitor “not ready,” and still pass.  Most cars have four to five Monitors.

Additionally, new security protocols require test facilities to submit photographs of the licence plate and dash of tested autos.  Interrupting the OBD connection during the e-test will cause the system to abort the test, so fraudsters can’t begin on one car and then switch the plug to another car to falsify a pass.

Cars, vans and light trucks of model-years 1988 to 1997 aren’t OBD compatible and will instead receive a two-speed idle test. Vehicles of model-year 1987 and earlier are exempt from Drive Clean.  New vehicles don’t require testing until seven years old, except for resale.

Until the end of 2012, vehicles with a “check engine” light on may pass the current test, but starting next year that’s an automatic fail.

If your vehicle will require a test in 2013 (all even model-years from 1998 to 2006), it’s perfectly allowable under Drive Clean rules to have it done now in 2012 – provided your birthday has passed – and be tested under existing, less-stringent standards.  A Drive Clean test is good for one year, but must be valid on your plate renewal date (normally your birthday).

Most vehicles will pass Drive Clean – a fact that critics cite in questioning the need to continue this program which technology has essentially made redundant as the on-board computer itself is now the primary e-test device and it already communicates trouble to the car owner via the “check engine” light.

While the archaic Drive Clean dyno will be gone by year’s end, the new OBD test is, in my opinion, about as lucky as a broken mirror for consumers – as it foreshadows at least seven more years of arguably unnecessary emissions tests for hapless Ontario drivers.

If most everyone passes, I’d argue it’s an unnecessary test.  As for duration, with the reduced cost of OBD test equipment and many new test facilities signing on, Drive Clean’s coverage will extend in 2013 to encumber virtually all Southern Ontario residents – and test facilities have been signed to seven year contracts.

With the demise of dynos, Drive Clean will no longer be spinning your wheels, except figuratively perhaps and, of course, in the pocketbook.

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