Opinion: California CARB’s vintage car survey is about data, not doomsday

Unsplash/Valeriia Neganova

Confirmation bias is the tendency to believe only information that confirms your worldview and reject as false anything that challenges it. Some people know, just know, that everything the government does is some kind of insidious plot. Usually, our merry little world of classic cars is above it all, but a case in point is a survey that California’s air quality agency, the California Air Resources Board, sent out last August to some owners of cars from 1978 or earlier. The nine-question survey asked things like how often the car is driven and how is it stored. (Its full text is embedded at the bottom of this story.)

Well, it proved to be Christmas in September for the national outrage industry, starting with an “exclusive” on The Daily Caller, a right-leaning online blowhorn founded by former Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The item suggested a link between the survey and proposed zero-emissions zones in California. It didn’t take a hieroglyphics expert to see what was being implied, that overregulated, overtaxed, EV-loving California was now moving the levers of its evil empire to ban old cars. The Caller story was soon echoing in other media outlets and ping-ponging around club forums and cars-and-coffee parking lots, a lot of red-faced folks charging exactly what it was worth for their free opinions.

I’ve still got a few contacts from when I wrote a story on the history of emissions controls, so I made some calls. Steve Albu spent 31 years at CARB and helped write a lot of the landmark regulations that cleaned up the cars we drive. He also owns and maintains a fleet of 20 antique Mopars and has tried—with limited success—to educate his fellow Moparians on what is really going on. Which is that California may eventually move to reduce regulation on older cars, but it needs some data first on how these cars are used and the emissions they generate.

Getting an older car smogged in California is no treat. Among Albu’s fleet is a 34-year-old Dodge pickup. Because of its age, it falls into the gap between 1976, when cars received catalytic converters, and 2000 when OBD II on-board diagnostics systems greatly simplified diagnosing emissions problems. Under current California law, vehicles that fall into this 1976-2000 age group must have a tailpipe sniffer test on a dyno every two years. Pre-’76 cars are exempt from any testing, and post-2000 cars simply have their OBD readers scanned. Because of all the extra time and equipment needed for the sniffer test, the cost is typically higher. My local smog shop charges $90 for the sniff compared to $60 for an OBD reader test.

Smog test tailpipe probe
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Beyond that, fixing cars that don’t pass has become “a racket,” according to Albu. For example, his truck failed on oxides of nitrogen (NOx), so he bought and installed a California-compliant replacement catalytic converter. Some emissions went down, but NOx stayed the same. “That catalyst simply has no rhodium in it, the stuff that reduces NOx,” he said. And California is not monitoring the makers of these replacement parts to ensure their quality. So owners are often getting screwed while trying to meet the law. Which is also turning desperate people into reluctant lawbreakers. There are phone numbers to which you can text your car’s VIN along with a Venmo of $300 and get back a passed smog certificate. The state is well aware of the cheating, but stamping it out is an endless game of Whac-A-Mole.

Within CARB, I’m told, is a group of regulators who want to bring rationality to the system by cutting loose from the smog-testing program the shrinking number of cars in the state built before 2000. And the number of 1976–2000 cars being tested is shrinking fast, from 1.6 million in 2018 to 1.2 million in 2020, statistically insignificant in a state with more than 30 million registered vehicles, while newer post-2000 vehicles already represent about 86 percent (and growing) of the cars tested.

But since nothing happens in regulatory agencies without data, the survey was a first step in mapping old car use. “The data we had was 20 years old,” said Michael McCarthy, chief technical officer and vehicle program specialist for CARB. The people who collect information for the agency “are always trying to refine our estimate of what’s out there.” As for McCarthy, he said, “I have no doubt in my mind that there’s nothing in the data that will say that emissions are going up on these vehicles… updating the data will only make the case stronger that it doesn’t make sense to keep regulating these things.”

Meaning that it really was in the interest of everyone receiving the survey to fill it out. Sometimes when the fellow says he’s from the government and he’s here to help you, he really is just here to help you.

2023 California Model Year … by Nick Pope




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    Aaron, when someone says they are from the government and are here to help, they are, to help their overlords. Ow o would not argue that maybe your government minions may at this point in time just want to collect data, however once they have the data what would prevent the overlords from saying look here we know who has antique cars now we will just go out and get them. Of course under the vail of protecting the environment. Don’t believe me remember what pettiness dictators like Neusom, Whitmire, Como, and other Socialist Democrats did during the so called pandemic. So don’t for a minute think these radical Socialist would not want to take away your cars.

    It’s probably hard to hear because of the thrumming of the jackbooted thugs marching on our garages, but there is, believe me, a LOT of giggling going on after reading this…

    Here are some legislation alerts we all should be aware of and we should be involved with.

    #1 The REPAIR Act with Right to Modify maintains your ability to work on your vehicle and/or choose where it is serviced. The bill prevents automakers from blocking access to information or tools needed to work on vehicles with modern technology.

    #2 The CARS Act prohibits regulations mandating the use of specific vehicle powertrain technologies. It responds to proposed EPA standards that force a Battery Electric Vehicle-only (BEV-only) future.

    #3 The Preserving Choice in Vehicle Purchases Act prevents a ban on internal combustion engines and protects against a BEV-only future as part of California’s regulations. It allows for development of emerging alternative fuel technologies while protecting American consumers from being forced into only one option.

    These issues are important to consumers, enthusiasts, and the more than one million Americans who work in the automotive aftermarket.

    Join me in making your voice heard, for the future of the automotive industry and to protect my livelihood! Visit SummitRacing.com/legislative-alerts

    I’m not sure how this survey has anything to do with taking people’s cars. After all, there is a record of every car with a license plate in the whole state at their fingertips.

    Much more likely is that a bunch of bureaucrats are looking for a way to reduce their workload, and as a result, give some relief to people with old cars. I suspect that collector cars are an insignificant part of the emissions in CA because they are driven so infrequently. In fact, I suspect that most of the emissions are unburned hydrocarbons evaporating from unsealed gas tanks and carburetors.

    I kinda see both sides of this. On one hand, they are collecting data to try to reduce emissions testing for older cars (something similarly populated NJ has already done). On the other hand, once the data is available, and particularly if the results do not support the concept of reduced emissions from this population of cars, what is to stop someone from using this data to target older cars? On the third hand, or the first hand, I lost count, yes, they already have the data on who owns what

    The less info they have the better. Do not trust CARB as they are more difficult than the EPA.

    CARB is loaded with activist that are not wanting to get along they want to stop internal combustion vehicles. They are not yo be trusted.

    We as enthusiast need to remain vigilant and aware of what groups to watch that can take away out hobby.

    The ways I expect they will do this is limit where or when we can use our cars. Or like in some countries they charge more tax on older cars making them difficult to own.

    We already have lost Much of the oils we need for flat tappet cams and an increase in more ethanol will destroy fuel systems.

    SEMA is standing up to these states and regulations. I hope to see the collector insurance industry step up and protect the hobby more.

    Leave it to the Hagerty commentariat to stumble headlong into a blatant example of confirmation bias (as outlined at the jump) without even realizing it. Seems like every time someone in the auto-journo community says “what if, maybe, they’re *not* trying to ban our fun?” they’re met with the screams of the perpetually outraged.
    Don’t forget: California lifted a ban on cruising. But go ahead back to your leaded gas.

    I could be, you don’t really care, because it’s not your ox that’s being gored, currently. Wait till your local government comes after you.

    We had similar testing here but a relatively recent government got rid of it entirely.

    Brine-salt mix on the roads eats everything here so fast very few things make it past “regular car” use to be viewed as old and worth saving. Things like Corvettes defy that of course, but almost none of them get winter driven.

    Law enforcement has jumped on this though, now hanging outside drag strips etc. to do “emissions blitzes”. And while that hits the occasional 70s car with straight pipe exhaust its really more about modern trucks (especially diesels) with obvious mods. Meanwhile they don’t enforce on the books fender (tire protrusion) or bumper height rules.

    If I was in California I would do the survey. I feel this is more like someone at Carb looking to justify what they want to do, even though straight registration data already does it (in my mind). I know people that have a 70s land yacht that they take out for one drive every year… If it is an evil government plot, well just another reason to leave California?

    I work in the aftermarket industry and the CARB laws are draconian.

    They are to the point that if you sell one simple gas can not conformed to their rules it can be millions of dollars in fines.

    If not for computers that prevent the affected parts from being sold it would be a large mess.

    Many of their residents find ways to get what they need but it is still difficult for them.

    Now that other states are in on CARB it is getting worse.

    Keep in mind this is the group that has it set to eliminate ICE sales in the next 10 years.

    Stellantis Has already stopped ICE sales to the 14 CARB states. You can only buy Hybrids.

    These 14 states are going to affect each of us as they represent near 50% of the market.

    I spent over 30 years employed as an engineer, in the food industry in California at one location. We had 26 permits to operate with the local air pollution control district. Their conduct was NEVER above board and they consistently engaged in underhanded behavior. At one point they attempted to fine my employer for a typo they created on one of our permits. I had to contract with a consultant to fight it and ultimately prevailed. No, this isn’t the the same folks, but it reflects the same attitude (if you don’t like it, you can always sue us, but it’s not really our money and we have nothing to lose…)
    It is naive to believe this line of thinking. The author either doesn’t live in California, or chooses to ignore history with the overwhelming evidence of the government agenda. I would be interested in reading specific examples of the government conducting anything favorable to our hobby.

    The purpose of this is additional regulation, plain and simple. Anyone thinking otherwise or that this is something that is going to protect antique car owners has had their head in the sand since COVID 19.

    Let’s be honest assuming California government does not mean well is a safe play to make. CARB? Doubly so. I understand the unease towards the bureaucrats in CARB or the EPA at this point.

    Bureaucracies are most accurately judged on past performance, with an eye on their traditional philosophy.
    Neither of which, especially in governments run by leftists, promotes a comfortable feeling. One or two carrots doesn’t atone for 50 years of, essentially, punishment. And, no, I don’t want a return to the leaded, smoggy, polluting ignorance of the past. But, in a geo-political environment where virtue-signalling is more likely than rational legislation, people are rightfully skeptical.

    I don’t bemoan the topic. My issue is with the author and his apparent bias. Can we go anywhere without having politics inserted into the discussion? Must Hagerty now be a source of political news?

    Give me an article written by a fellow with an oil stained rag beside his keyboard, used to wipe his grimy fingers before he sets to type. Or a fellow with a sweat stained race suit hanging on the door. Or from any one of a number of fellows who live, breathe, and think about cars before affairs of state.

    Our cars are a diversion, a get-away from the tussles of daily life. Let it be so. Don’t stain our sport with political nonsense.

    Hi Robert, you have indeed read an article by someone with oil stained rags and grimy fingernails (I’ve actually got the better part of a cooling system out of a ’73 Land Rover 109 Station Wagon sitting in a filthy box next to my computer at present as I need to reference it to order parts). I’ve got 11 cars, four of which are more than 70 years old, and I am their chief and only mechanic. Plus there’s a smelly driving suit hanging in the closet too. Hope that makes the facts go down a little easier.

    The problem here is that this is a political issues that pertains to our hobby and is an ever present threat to our hobby and investment.

    It is funny how some states are fighting the right to work on your own car but yet they ban after markert exhausts. NY is a Carb state and they also prevent the changing of exhaust to anything not stock even if it is a cat back that has nothing to do with emissions.

    Many of these laws are not fully enforced but they can and do when they want to.

    Testing and meeting factory emissions or using approved parts to modify and meet emissions I can live with but the problem is they will not stop there and it is a matter of time they will try to prevent our hobby from being practiced.

    Think not? Look up the RPM act where appointed activist at the EPA are now tying to prevent any changed to new cars even if is for race only. Yes you can buy a new Camaro to race and they will not let you make any changed to the car that do not meet emission even if you drive it only a 1/4 mile at a time.

    Note the law was passed to exempt these cars but the new people at the EPA are trying to reinterpret these laws to be what they want not what our leaders voted on and passed on capital hill.

    I am not trying to be an alarmist but just pointing out that we are facing opposition to those who are not aware what is going on with out the news headlines. I see this every day at work new challenges to our hobby daily.

    Wow, you didn’t spell a single name correctly of the three you listed. That makes me question your education, frankly.

    And you are really worried that this survey will tell the “overlords” (CA government officials?) where the classic cars are for the purpose of confiscation? Don’t you think the state already knows that from registration data?

    There’s skeptical. Then there’s just plain dumb.

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