Colorado State Wants to Know: Will Smart Cars Reduce Emissions?

The National Center for Vehicle Emissions Control and Safety at Colorado State University will be receiving over $1.3 million in federal, state and private funds to find out if the check engine light on your dashboard can really reduce pollution.

Check engine lights are built-in computers that alert drivers when their cars’ emissions are high and warn them of potential engine trouble. The computers, called on-board diagnostics, have been gradually phased in since 1978, and are mandated on all light duty vehicles sold after 1996.

"On-board diagnostics are the future of emissions control, but there are major technical and social issues which need to be addressed so that on-board diagnostics actually result in cleaner air," said Birgit Wolff, director of the National Center for Vehicle Emissions Control and Safety at Colorado State. "With this study we will find out how drivers will respond to the technology, if the on-board diagnostics technology is reliable and how mechanics can be trained to fix cars with on-board diagnostics."

The on-board diagnostics study will include consumer research to find out if the public will accept the technology and allow it to work the way that it has been designed. If consumers ignore the service engine light and don’t take their vehicles in when prompted, the on-board diagnostics could result in more pollution. Studies also will be done on owners’ tampering with emissions control devices.

"We know that in the past, vehicle owners have often ignored check engine lights unless the drivability of their vehicle became severely impaired, but we don’t know how they will respond to the signals they receive from their on-board diagnostic equipped cars," Wolff said.

In the future, on-board diagnostics may include transponders on cars which would allow a vehicle’s identification and emissions status to be reported to a remote location. Research will include consumer studies to find out if drivers will reject the new technology because of privacy issues, or if they will feel cleaner air is worth the tradeoff.

Wolff said transponders may also cause controversy because they could open the door for such measures as lockouts on high pollution days or remote disabling of a car if it does not comply with emissions standards. Even though future generations of on- board diagnostics have the potential to eliminate the need for present-day inspection and maintenance programs, consumers may feel potential negative results outweigh the convenience of fewer emissions tests and trips to the mechanic.

The on-board diagnostics study also will test the computer hardware and software to find out if they work as claimed by manufacturers. Tests will be conducted over time on vehicles that are being used in the real world instead of the laboratory. If the technology proves unreliable, a car’s emissions could appear to be low, but actually be at an unacceptable level.

In addition, the study will address training of mechanics in the new computer systems. On-board diagnostics are moving toward giving a detailed diagnosis of car trouble and giving mechanics instructions on how to fix it. Since on-board diagnostics soon will be found on every vehicle, automotive technicians will need to be trained nationwide to read the computers, find problems and make effective repairs. Repair shops will need new equipment, hardware and software to service the on-board diagnostic equipped vehicles. The study will address these challenges and offer recommendations.

"This project will position us as national leaders in emissions research," Wolff said. "The study fits well into the White House agenda and helps to address the current questions of climate change and pollution. The center’s research will have a major impact on the evolution of on-board diagnostics, public policy and emissions reductions."

The National Center for Vehicle Emissions Control and Safety opened in 1976 and is the nation’s only university-based center devoted exclusively to the study of light-duty vehicle emissions control. The center is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences.