The state's vehicle emissions program is changing the way it tests newer cars, but the effect should be minimal on motorists when they visit a testing station.
Beginning today, Maryland's Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program will use a computerized scan test for cars and light trucks of model year 1996 and later. The "on-board diagnostics" test will replace mandatory dynamometer testing for those vehicles.
The test enables technicians at testing stations to link monitors with a vehicle's in-dash engine computer. In less than a minute, technicians can check for "trouble codes" stored in the vehicle's computer memory that can indicate whether a problem exists in the emissions or fuel systems. If the vehicle does not pass, a diagnostic report will indicate likely causes, such as a faulty spark plug.
"It will be a faster test, an easier test," said Ron Lipinski, manager of the Mobile Source Control Program for the Maryland Department of the Environment. "We're looking forward to it."
The on-board diagnostic test is seen as a step forward in the state's effort to comply with federal requirements to improve air quality in urban areas.
Pollutants in vehicle exhaust, especially hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide, contribute to ground-level ozone, which poses a health threat. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies Baltimore's ground-level ozone problem as severe.
The system has undergone tests at the Edgewood station and the state was adding it to its 19 testing facilities during the weekend.
"We want the transition to be seamless to the public," Lipinski said. "We don't want a disruption to the system."
"Everything is ready. Our staff is all trained," said Joel Unverzagt, general manager for Environmental Systems Products, the contractor that has been operating the vehicle emissions program for the state since 1999. " ... Nobody will probably notice the difference."
Several states, including Wisconsin, Vermont and Oregon, use the new system. Illinois, Virginia and Pennsylvania plan to make the switch this year. "It's not like Maryland is the first one. It's a proven methodology," Unverzagt said.
Wisconsin began using the on-board diagnostics in a pilot program in 1998.
"We've studied it backwards and forward. It's very accurate. It's very customer-friendly," said Chuck Rhodes, operations manager for Wisconsin's Vehicle Inspection Program. "It takes about 15 to 20 seconds. Your public will have less wait. They will like it."
Vehicles produced before 1996 will continue to be tested using the dynamometer, which requires a technician to place the vehicle on a treadmill and run the engine to simulate normal driving conditions while measuring the vehicle's tailpipe emissions.
According to state officials, it takes motorists five to 10 minutes on nonpeak days to have their vehicles tested using the dynamometer. The new test is expected to speed that process slightly.
"We're hoping it will be five minutes or less," Lipinski said.
Computers have been built into vehicles for the past decade, but it only has been since 1996 that manufacturers began using standardized equipment. Repair facilities were the first ones to use the technology for diagnostic testing.
The state conducts emissions tests on about 1.2 million cars and light trucks each year in Baltimore City and 12 counties.
State officials do not expect the public resistance to the new system that the dynamometer program received when it was introduced in the fall of 1997.
"It should be a lot easier on their vehicle," Lipinski said.
Despite the initial opposition, the dynamometer program has worked well and met its goals, officials said. They estimate the program prevents 23 tons of pollutants from spewing into Maryland's air each day.