Obama’s Emissions Changes?


A lively new topic amongst technicians in our trade has popped up over President Obama’s moves to apparently move vehicle emission standards emphasis from the Federal to the State level.

Click here for the news-story.

Most everyone agrees that emission controls are necessary.  Having different configurations based on a vehicle’s original state of purchase will be hard on manufacturers and owners alike.

This topic reminds me of this story:

One morning on my drive to work I stopped within a block of a gas station.  I was slapped in the face with a strong smell of raw fuel vapors.  As I got closer to the station I could see that there was a tanker truck filling the station’s in-ground fuel tanks.  The vapors were so strong that I seriously hoped no-body that smoked would get as close to that station as I was.  I have a healthy fear of fuel from years of experience with it.

As it happens, when I got to work, Scott, a professional engineer, was in to have his Mini serviced.  Scott regularly works with the fuel refineries in the valley.  I relayed the fuel station story to Scott to get his opinion on the matter.

My beef was with the double-standard that I apparently tripped over.  Modern passenger vehicles have expensive and sophisticated emission controls to strictly ensure your vehicle emits little to no raw-fuel vapors into the atmosphere.  The reason is simple – raw fuel is essentially unchecked hydrocarbons – a controlled emission responsible for smog and ozone pollution.

Fuel vapor controls (more commonly known as evaporative controls) on vehicles typically cost hundreds to diagnose and repair.  A modern vehicle with a leak as small as a pin-prick with cause its check-engine light to come on.  We service these systems regularly at Integrity First Automotive.

My question to Scott was why would the State allow this fuel-station filling process to emit such huge quantities of fuel vapors when vehicle owners are so tightly regulated.  This one gas-station filling incident probably let more raw fuel vapors into Utah’s atmosphere than thousands, possibly tens-of-thousands of Utah motorist do in a year.

Scott wasn’t moved.  He knew of a much worse pollutant:  the burn-off stacks in Utah’s refineries.  (You’ve probably seen one in the Woods-Cross area as you’ve driven I-15 just north of downtown Salt Lake City.)  According to Scott these stacks burn unrefined materials and do not have any emission controls.  As a result they produce large quantities of pollution.

I’m not the engineer Scott is but I have to wonder about the priorities of law-makers and regulators that allow this inconsistency to exist.  Scott was quick to point out that California has stricter legislation for these ‘industrial’ polluters.  

Obama’s changes in Washington threaten to make vehicle production and ownership a much more costly experience for vehicle owners.  I feel most vehicle owners want to be responsible citizens who don’t pollute unnecessary. 

What I’d like to see from legislators is a ‘open book’ profile of the different sources of pollution and where passenger vehicles are on the scale.  Hopefully then everyone can see sensible solutions.  Certainly controlling fuel vapors at Utah gas stations during tank-filling should be on that list!

Utah International Auto Expo

This week we were treated to the Utah International Auto Expo in Sandy courtesy of Motor Trend.

 The good news:  As I saw it, America’s love affair with the automobile is far from over.

And, as I hope this small sampling of photos will show, there was a lot to love.

One interesting observation:  No BMW or Volkswagen presence!




Chevy Camaro

New Camaro


 Crazy Bike 



 Scion xB

Scion Tuned



 Lotus Elise

(one of my personal favorites – and powered by Toyota!)

Lotus Elise


Mercury Grill



Land Rover

Land Rover

The People’s Car

True confession:  (if my 928 posting didn’t already reveal this) Like most mechanics, I have some less-than-justifiable affections for some cars.  One such car (for me) is the almighty Volkswagen Quantum.  Sold in the US between 1982 and 1989 this trusty VW will have a very hard time making it to any automobile hall-of-fame.  It was, really, the first Passat sold in the US but like all VWs of its time, it got rebranded for this market.  At my shop, during winter months, you will likely find a 1985 Quantum wagon fitted with VW’s all-wheel-drive ‘Syncro’ system.  It is one of approximately 500 that made it to the US for 1985 and one of approximately 3000 that were ever sold here.  If the Quantum has a chance of any immortality (and it doesn’t) the Syncro Wagon is it.  Mine represents a 5-year restoration effort in my first (and last!) full automobile restoration.  If you think it’s an ugly car now . . .

Anyway (don’t laugh) there is a close-knit web community of Quantum owners whose activities center around a Yahoo! Group:  Syncronized.  It was recently brought-up there that the Quantum is still built and sold in China!  

Which reminded me of the original People’s Car:  the VW Beetle and its recent production hault in Mexico.  Until a few years ago you could still buy a brand-new old-style Beetle south of the boarder.  An friend of mine, who grew up in Mexico, told me that there the old Beetle is referred to as a bellybutton because “everybody has one”.

Now think for a minute of the ‘economy of scale’ such a huge production level would have!  The R&D costs, distributed over all cars ever built, would have to be tiny.  Likewise the cost of making the custom toolings to stamp out the sheet metal, to hone the engine blocks, to mold the various plastics, etc would also be very small per car.  An economist would be able to answer this better but I expect VW’s costs to build a Beetle was almost entirely production.

Same too for the Quantum in China.

So, why doesn’t this happen more in our market?  

Would you be interested in an old car like the Beetle if it was, say, $5,000 new?  What about the Quantum?

Would that be good for our economy?

The simpliest answers are in our regulations:  an old Beetle wouldn’t have a prayer of passing our modern new-car emission standards.  The Quantum would have a chance but not in the way it was configured back in 1985.  Safety too would be a failure.  Personally I wouldn’t want to only be protected by the Beetle’s safety features on a modern US freeway but the Quantum isn’t as bad.  Add some airbags and it would probably be able to pass new-car standards with only a few more tweaks.

In fact the modern VW Jetta and Golf (er – we’re back to calling it the Rabbit) use a derivative of the Quantum’s engine as their base engine offering:  the 2.5L 5-cylinder.  The Quantum’s most common engine was a 2.2L 5-cylinder so obviously if the new engine can pass emission standards the old engine could be built to do so.

The other glaring issue is the buying public’s demand:  as much as I love the old Quantum even I have to admit that our modern cars are certainly more desirable.

I’m no economist so I won’t draw any conclusions here but I do want to leave you with these thoughts:  if the US automakers built cars with those kinds of ‘economy of scales’ would they be in the financial trouble they are in now?  If our safety and emission standards had more flexibility to allow car technology to have a longer lifespan would that be good?  Would we as a buying-public want that?

Just thoughts.  

Oh – and now that my secret is out – if you ever need professional help with a VW Quantum you would have a hard time finding someone with more capability and knowledge in the US / ‘Quantum Mechanic’ jokes aside!!

Quantum Wagon and Quantum Coupe

Risky Business

Most everyone fell in love with some car in their youth that has retained a special place in their heart.  For me it was the Porsche 928.  A beautiful supercar that Porsche built in the late seventies; it was supposed to replace the famous 911 as their flagship product.  It received all kinds of awards from the automotive-who’s-who of the day leaving the engineers back in Germany feeling a sense of mission-accomplished.

The automotive buying public had different ideas and the brutish V8 from Zuffenhausen suffered in sales and had to eventually hand the company-image back to its older brother the 911.

The 928’s best hope was in the 1983 Hollywood smash:  Risky Business.  Where a young Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay take ‘daddy’s’ 928 out and end up putting it in the lake.

For those of us that remember the movie here’s a fun treat for you:

The Porsche 928 From Risky Business.

It isn’t Marty McFly’s DeLorean but if you’re feeling inspired to dance in your living room without any pants we won’t blame you.

The Old Car

It is distressing to me when my clients have to decide if an old car is worth fixing.  I have seen this recently with two different 4-door sedans:  both domestic, approximately 10 years old, with new sticker prices of approximately $20,000.  (I’m approximating to make the numbers easy). 

Cost of depreciation, if we say both cars are still worth $2000 on the used car market (this may be optimistic), would be $18,000 over 10 years.  Almost $2,000 per year.  This isn’t counting the cost of financing the car which most people do.

Both cars, I’m sad to say, were poorly maintained and thus were hard to spend repair money on because, let’s face it, we don’t know how long our investment in keeping this car alive will pay-off before the car needs some other life-saving repair.

If these cars were well maintained it would be realistic to expect another 5-10 years of service from them.  This could as much as double their owner’s return on investment.  Basically meaning that maintaining your vehicle can, roughly, double your return on investment. 

This is before considering other savings including insurance costs, registration costs, property taxes, etc.  You also save financing costs since you own the vehicle and because you maintain it you have repair savings that typically approximate $1000 per year (according to industry experts).

Finally consider the difference in your day-to-day driving when you are driving a well-maintained vehicle vs. one that isn’t.  Safety, reliability, and even the aesthetic enjoyment of the ride aren’t easy to put a dollar-value on but are still important.

It may be financially fashionable to consider your vehicle a depreciating asset and thus not worth any investment.  The trouble with this logic is we need our vehicles.  They may cost to buy and keep on the road but unless we can get rid of this need our best survival tactic is instead to maximize our investment.  There is only one way to do this:  preventative maintenance.