FEDERAL guidelines now under development could force some states to scrap automobile emissions control programs that rely on private businesses to do the testing. The guidelines are being prepared by the Office of Mobile Sources in Ann Arbor, Mich., a branch of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When Congress reauthorized the Clean Air Act last year, it added 61 cities to the list of 90 that previously were required to conduct emissions tests. And it directed the EPA to develop an ``enhanced'' test for use in urban areas where ozone (smog) and carbon monoxide levels are ``serious'' or worse.
Last week the EPA began to circulate a draft ``Guidance on Inspection/Maintenance'' for comment. The 40-page document outlines four options for the enhanced test, ranging in stringency from slight to ``very agressive,'' says Jane Armstrong, senior project manager of the Ann Arbor office's emission control technology division.
By May, the EPA will incorporate public comment into its draft guidelines. After a period of further review, the final guidelines will be published in the Federal Register no later than Nov. 15.
Some observers worry that the EPA, as an environmentally minded organization which has the power to mandate programs while leaving implementation to others, has already settled on the most stringent testing option, even though any of the four would satisfy Congress.
Ms. Armstrong says that's ``not at all'' true, and that ``public comment has an impact.
``We got an earful'' last week when presenting the draft to interested state officials and businessmen at meetings in Washington and San Francisco, she adds.
Their concern focused on the likelihood that if either of the two most stringent options is made final, states that have decentralized testing programs will have to switch to centralized ones. The old rules let states choose.
Centralized programs are operated by a state agency or private contractor using multilane, single-purpose facilities that resemble a do-it-yourself car wash. Decentralized programs rely on service stations to conduct the inspections. Illinois and Arizona are two states with centralized programs, while those in Massachusetts, New York, California, and Texas are decentralized.
Armstrong agrees that two most stringent options would put a burden of proof on states with decentralized programs to show that they could do the job. She adds that she doubts any could because, historically, decentralized programs are far less effective because of cheating, lax oversight, and the ability of motorists to shop around for a passing inspection rather than pay for repairs.
Larry Sherwood, who manages California's program and attended the San Francisco meeting, says most people acknowledge that centralized testing is needed. But California would have a hard time changing, he says, citing the ``enormous logistical challenge'' and opposition from private firms that do the testing. These firms are already lobbying state lawmakers. State legislatures cannot overrule the federal EPA, but they could engage in footdragging or lobby Washington for relief. ``There are some deals to be made that haven't been made yet,'' he says.
Another concern about the draft guidelines focuses on the most stringent of the four options, which would require a controversial procedure called transient testing. This involves putting rollers under the drive wheels of the test vehicle. While the vehicle accelerates and decelerates according to a prescribed pattern, tailpipe emissions are sampled by equipment far more sophisticated than that now used.
Because it simulates real driving, transient testing is thought to be more effective than the steady idle tests in current use.
But Frank Sherman, a consultant who used to manage the Illinois emissions testing program, says transient testing has a host of drawbacks:
Lack of trial. While transient testing has performed well in isolated use, it hasn't been subjected to the nonstop usage it would see at a testing center.
Equipment. At present it costs $30,000 to $50,000 to outfit one lane at a testing facility. The EPA estimates the new equipment would cost $150,000 to $450,000.
Time. A vehicle can be tested in under three minutes currently. Transient testing would more than double the time.
Operating cost. Current tests cost $5 to $10 to perform. Transient testing would push that to $40 to $60. Illinois, which now provides free testing, might see costs go from $20 million to $120 million for its Chicago program.
Implementation. Transient testing would be performed on 1994 model and later vehicles, allowing testing centers to spread out the cost of outfitting emissions testing lanes. But increasingly, cars are being built with a computerized, onboard diagnostics capability that might spot the problems that would cause the vehicle to fail a transient test. ``You really don't know what a 1994 vehicle looks like,'' Mr. Sherman says.
Alternatives. Other tests that the EPA is considering would achieve the desired emissions reductions at much lower cost. With these tests and vehicle onboard diagnostics, the gain from transient testing could be marginal. ``There is some overlap,'' Sherman says.
Impact on fleet testing. Illinois has a centralized program but allows owners of fleets of vehicles to hire private companies to test them. However, the high cost and immobility of transient testing equipment would virtually force all work to be done at centralized facilities.
``It could seriously jeopardize the fleet testing business,'' says Keevin Schier, president of Mobile Emissions Testing Corporation (METCORP). The Wheeling, Ill., company tests 10,000 vehicles a year at the fleet owners' sites, making it the largest firm in the country to offer that service.
DHL Airways in Chicago prefers to pay METCORP to test its 90 vehicles after hours, rather than go to the state for free testing. It's more efficient and convenient than paying DHL's drivers to wait at state facilities and have vehicles out of action, says fleet supervisor Bud Katamay.
Armstrong says that the new guidelines would still give states the flexibility to exclude their relatively small number of fleet vehicles from transient tests.
Enforcement. Mechanics are not going to have the expensive, laboratory-grade transient testing equipment, therefore would not be able to verify correcting an emissions problem detected by such tests, Sherman says.
``It's important that mechanics be able to replicate the test procedure,'' Armstrong agrees. But she says that many garages are already finding a need to own more sophisticated diagnostic equipment. She speculates that cheaper, garage-quality versions of the laboratory-grade equipment will come to be used by testing facilities and mechanics.
Transient testing is also defended as ``extremely effective'' by William Watson, manager of Arizona's testing program. His state already has the most stringent tests in the country and doesn't have the pollution problems that would require that test. But - with state population expected to double in 20 years - Mr. Watson is considering developing ``something like'' transient testing. ``We know we can't just let it go.''