Car Emissions Regulations Don’t Make Sense

Let me ask this provocative question:

Why is it legal to drive a 30 year old diesel but when your 10-year old, much cleaner car doesn’t pass the smog check, you’re not allowed to drive it?

Cars are expensive consumer products and thus, users expect to be able to use their investment for some time.

On the other side, emissions and safety standards continuously get stricter. The problem is that they only apply to new cars. Even in subsequent smog checks, cars are judged and approved not by current standards but by the standards that were in place at the time of manufacturing.

Economically, this may make sense, since we don’t want to buy new cars all the time. But it leads to situations where someone with a car that’s a few years old could get into trouble for having tailpipe emissions that are just a small percentage over the current standards, but far below the 1970 standards that can still be legally used when the car that emits them is built in 1970?

Is that logical?

This whole thing is so engrained in society that it seems to be accepted as totally natural but it doesn’t make sense at all. The idea is that when a product is purchased, it should be possible to use it indefinitely, even if regulations change. But should it?

Let’s look at other examples:

Early X-Ray machines required way more dangerous levels of radiation to obtain useful images than today. Does that mean that it’s acceptable to expose a patient to 1950s radiation levels because the equipment has been purchased 70 years ago?

Or let’s talk about plumbing: it used to be common to use lead pipes in water supply. Should water treatment plants that contaminate the water with lead continue to operate, simply because they already exist?

Here’s a more current story: the FCC auctioned off parts of the ~600mhz frequency band to cellular carriers. In this band, however, many wireless microphones used operate that are now suddenly not only illegal to import but also illegal to use after 2020 if they’re already existing because they would interfere with the cellular service. Should small radio stations that already have audio equipment operating in this band be permitted to continue using it indefinitely because it’s already been purchased?

I think, the answer in all of those cases is ‘no’. At some point, we need to set a limit. At some point, we need to accept that requirements have changed due to environmental, infrastructural or health-related considerations.

Of course, there should be a grace period for the transition to new technology, but when technology is already written off, we should re-consider it.

It gets particularly absurd considering that when a used car is sold in California, it is subject to the same tax as if it was a new car, but the emissions regulations that apply to it are not the current ones but the regulations that applied whenever the car was built. Vehicles built before 1975 don’t even have to undergo a smog check at all!

One could argue that classic cars are only driven on special occasions, but I’ve seen enough Mercedes Turbodiesels from the mid-80s park in strip malls in California to believe that they’re used for more than just special occasions. (I can’t blame the drivers. Those are incredibly tough and reliable cars with good fuel economy.).

It also gets absurd for newer vehicles. Thousands of Volkswagen cars got recalled after it became known that their Diesel engines did not meet the regulations standard, but older vehicles that had higher emissions emissions than the recalled vehicles were acceptable, because due to the date of approval, they were not subject to the newer standards. What’s the point in all this? If this would actually be about public health, regulations would apply to all cars. What’s the point in recalling a few newer cars if there are way more older cars on the road that don’t meet the standards in the first place?

Approval based on manufacture date is nonsensical. It means that someone with a 1970 truck can go coal-running all they want while people that happen to have a 2009 vehicle, way cleaner, might not pass a smog check. If the smog check is important, the same rules should apply to everyone. If it’s not, then we can just deregulate everything.

Vehicles drive in a public space and pollute the same environment and just because one car was built in 1960 and another car was built in 2010, there’s no reason to treat them differently.

Let’s say anti-smoking regulations are put in place for parks in a certain town. One could argue that citicens born before 1960 should be exempt from those regulations because smoking was ubiquitous at this time and they were born when it was completely OK. That’s just as absurd as saying that a car built in 1960 can emit more toxic gases than a car built in 2010.

The way this should work is that car manufacturers get a limited time permit for the vehicle emissions. These allowances will get more expensive every year after the manufacturing date, but will be re-set if the car is retrofitted to meet current emission standards. Even a 10 to 20 year grace period would be acceptable, but the assumption that a product like a motor vehicle, that affect public health, infrastructure and the environment, can be used indefinitely because it received an “OK” decades ago is absurd.

If car manufacturers want to give people the guaranteed ability to continue driving their old vehicles, they may offer conversion kits like Volkswagen is planning for old Beetles (which was a widely popular vehicle in the 1950s).


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