Drive Cycle Hell

smogHaving moved to Southern California in 1971 when summer brought smog days that left the air a sickly brown and people wheezing from breathing pollution, I appreciate the improvements that have been made in reducing polluters. And I know that one of the factors in being able to breathe easier are the reduction in vehicle emissions and the Smog Check Program that tests vehicles periodically to make sure emissions are still low. Yes, it is a small pain in the neck to take my car to a smog check station before it can be registered, but its a small price to pay. Except when its a big price to pay.

Years ago, smog tests were primarily based on measuring the chemical content of the exhaust from the tailpipe. If pollutants were below the state specified levels you passed. $60 please. As cars became more electronically sophisticated, on board computers smog checkbecame standard components in all cars. One of these, known as OBD2 (On Board Diagnostics), measures various engine parameters makes them available via a small connector under the dashboard. Part of the emissions diagnostics run by the computer are based upon measurement of parameters over a variety of conditions and speeds. Each time one of these diagnostic tests completes, it is recorded on the onboard computer. With this capability in all cars, smog testing has has come to depend first on all the emissions readiness codes showing as complete. However, any time the car battery is disconnected or dead, the computer resets all the codes to incomplete.

Shortly before I took my trusty old Acura to the smog check station this year, I had to replace the alternator, which requires … you guessed it … disconnecting the battery. So my car failed the smog test. Try driving down to the La Palma Road, the technician said. Turn off the air and try to keep it at 55 mph, then come back. Still incomplete. You just have to drive it more, the technician said. Take your wife for a nice drive to the beach. Still incomplete. Try doing a couple of drive cycles, she said. Now, a drive cycle is a specific pattern of driving that is intended to cause each of the diagnostics to complete. There are generic drive cycles and drive cycles specific to certain makes. The owners manual for my Acura lists this drive cycle:

(1) Make sure the gas tank is nearly full and that the car has been parked with the engine off for at least 6 hours; (2) Without touching the gas pedal, start the car and let it idle for 2 minutes; (3) With the car still in Park, increase the engine speed to 2000 rpm for 3 minutes; (4) Let the car idle without touching the gas for 20 seconds; (5) Find a lightly used highway and maintain a speed of 50-60mph for at least 20 minutes. During this time, drive for 90 seconds without moving the gas pedal; (6) Drive in suburban/city traffic for at least 10 minutes, letting the car coast several times; (7) Make sure the car has been parked with the engine off for at least 30 minutes.

You may have to perform the drive cycle more than once, the not-so-helpful owners manual says. So I did. I even bought a device that plugs into the OBD2TorqueLite port and shows the readiness codes on my phone. I have now driven over six hundred miles and done five drive cycles. The catalytic converter readiness code still is incomplete. The internet … other smog test shops … just say DRIVE MORE. It will eventually show complete. My registration is overdue and even though I’ve paid my fees, I can’t get my tags until the car passes. The question is: How long do I risk driving with expired plates hoping that the readiness codes will complete? Oh yeah, one additional fact. A catalytic converter costs about $1000. That, my friends, is Drive Cycle Hell.



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2 Comments on “Drive Cycle Hell”

  1. barrythewiz Says:

    Maybe emissions standards are lower in Utah and you can get it to pass there?????

    • oldereyes Says:

      Hey, Barry. I found a guy at our local Honda dealer that for one hours labor can make the drive cycle complete. I left my car with him Wednesday night and Thursday morning, it was done. Took it back to the smog test station and it passed. Not exactly a GET OUT OF HELL FREE but close enough.

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