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February 12, 2014

Drive Clean

Most of what truly caused my frustration in this story could have been avoided easily by having done the emissions test sooner. If I had done it before the end of last year, I could have done the tail-pipe emissions test and passed with flying colours. Even if I had done the test a week sooner, it could have alleviated the pressure to complete it before my birthday. My frustration stems mostly from the time of year and (self imposed) lack of time to complete the needed steps.

When they introduced the Drive Clean program way back when... I recall thinking that it as a cash grab and a pain in the posterior.
The first part for the sheer logic that the vehicles that it was designed to "catch" would be the first ones to leave the roads by natural causes (engine failure, upgrades or just plain scrap) and the second point, because my car was among them.

Well back then, my car passed first try (and every time since then). It is my strong belief that every vehicle I ever tested has had the "MIL" (service engine) light ON at the time of testing. That is, that despite literally every car having "some" fault code active at the time of testing, all passed the emissions testing.

So with that in mind I've never been terribly concerned about the presence of the "MIL" light (it's been on in virtually every car my wife and I have driven for almost all the time we have driven them). So when purchasing my current car (mini-van to be precise), I did not have a fit when the light came on 6 minutes into the drive home. I would have almost been disappointed had it not come on. Oh yes, like everyone else on the continent, we have taken one or two of them (our cars) to a mechanic to get them diagnosed (and fixed) and the reality is more often than not that the number of things that cause a particular code to occur make it impractical to "fix". Because often it's cheaper just to "try" the most common cause than to do a proper diagnosis. So often we just ignore it.

For many of us, it's been our mechanic that's taught us that we can safely ignore that MIL. I can hear the environmentalists now (all preparing for my eventual beheading), but there are stories of people spending thousands to fix fault codes that never got fixed. I don't have thousands of dollars for "maybe" (I don't even have thousands for definitely). I mean, if I wanted to spend 2 or 3 thousand more than I did on the car, then I would have spent it at the outset, not after I bought it, trying to turn off a light. The fact is, if it passes the emissions test, then it is sending less out the tailpipe that the government required for that make and model for that year of vehicle. And isn't that the goal? I mean if I pollute less than they would have allowed from the same car right off the line, then isn't that good enough?

It used to be. Not anymore! Now, they don't want to even check your tailpipe emissions. Now, they just want to see if your on board computer is happy. So basically if you have no fault codes and your computer has (since its last reset) managed to perform all of its self-tests, you should pass emissions (even if you're blowing enough smoke out the back to block out the sun on a windy day). And conversely, if you have fault codes, or your computer has not managed to run all of its self-tests you will fail your Drive Clean Test. Even if you've discovered some magic which reduced your harmful emissions to zero.

Now, of course, odds are good that neither of my two extreme imaginary situations will exist (for most people), but it does highlight the point. Shouldn't emissions testing be about the emissions? That is my gripe (and most people's gripe) about the "new" test.

The new Drive Clean inspection is NOT an emissions test. This is a mechanical inspection. The problem is that we will continue to refer to it as an emissions test and then we'll be annoyed because it isn't. This is a mechanical inspection to verify the proper functioning of the majority of your car's emissions equipment. If you think of it as that (instead of an emissions test) you'll find it easier to understand.

There is quite literally NO INFORMATION about what is actually done at the drive clean inspection, so here is my take on it.

If you fail, you can have repairs related to correcting the specific fault codes done by an approved shop where costs do not exceed $450 and if you fail "again" the system will generate a "conditional pass". A conditional pass is good enough to renew a sticker, but cannot be used for a new registration (can't use it to transfer ownership). If after the work, your car passes then it is a full pass and no restrictions accompany the pass.

Three things before I get to my story

DON'T do repairs first "hoping to pass". There is a conditional pass available if you do $450 worth of repairs designed to fix the specific issues found on a failed test. If you do repairs first, those costs cannot be included in that total.

DON'T clear fault codes from your onboard computer (by disconnecting the battery or any other means) before going for the test. Doing this will cause your onboard computer to reset all of it's "self tests" and you will fail as a result of the computer not being in a "READY" state. If however, you have an OBD-II tester that can tell you when your car's "drive status" is ready, this might be helpful (will not apply to most people).

DON'T do the test with a full tank of gas. The amount of gas in your tank will NOT affect the results, BUT (yes, there's a but) if you end up having to do a repair, the technician is going to reset your onboard computer and SOME of your computer's self tests will NOT take place unless you have between 1/4 and 3/4 of a tank of gas. If you go with a full tank, you may well have to drive your car just to waste the gas to get to the point where your car will perform its self tests. * This is the tip no one is going to tell you about. Even if you manage to find the particular "drive cycle" for your car, they likely won't tell you that some of the tests just won't happen if there is too much or too little gas, so have about 1/2 tank when you go (just in case).

I left my test until 2 days before my birthday. My logic is sound (honest). It's February, and I generally don't have money in February, so I know the charges will go on a credit card. So the later I leave it, the less interest I'll have to pay (or that's the theory anyway). It's what I didn't know that made this a bad idea.

I went to the local Drive Clean Test site. I told the guy my engine light was on. He said something to the effect of "You know it's going to fail right?". I replied that I was aware, but what were my options? To do repairs first and then if I fail have even more repairs to do (at additional cost)? When I put it like that, he understood what I was getting at. He was a nice young kid and we had a friendly chat for a moment or two. I filled out the necessary paperwork and they did the test. Fail!

The boss comes out and begins to explain where I go from here. He explains about the repair limit and that the repairs do not have to be done at his shop and so on. I knew all that before I came. I came "here" because they've always been good to me. I tell them to go ahead with the diagnostic. I pay the $40 Drive-By fee - er I mean Drive Clean fee. He calls me a few hours later with an explanation of the diagnostics. A sensor reports this problem but it's wrong, so we need to change the sensor. There's a small leak in the dohingy beside the whatchamacallit so we need a new one of those and we're not quite up to the $450 limit so we have another faulty sensor. Actually he gave a detailed explanation, and noted that the parts were all in stock at the local dealership. I gave him the go ahead. To keep things in perspective, I knew before I even left the house that I would be doing repairs and aiming for a "conditional pass". For those not aware, a conditional pass is a "fail" where you spend enough money fixing problems to justify them letting you have your plates/sticker but is not good enough to transfer ownership of the car.

I headed back for 6pm to pick up my car, thinking that I would just pick it up with my conditional pass and be on my way to ServiceOntario in the morning to get my sticker. Such is not the case. In doing the diagnostic and service, he erased the fault codes (I'm not sure that was required but can understand why it is done). And when the fault codes are reset, so too are the "drive status" markers. Drive status markers are simply flags which report if the onboard computer has (since its last reset) performed a number of self-tests. The vehicle can now not be retested until the Drive Status is "ready" (I gleaned from our conversation that ready is defined as "all self tests" must have completed except that he is allowed to accept one incomplete test. At that point, he told me to bring the car back tomorrow and we could do the retest (if the system was "ready").

I returned the next morning having taken some care to perform the drive cycle shown on the web as close as reasonably possible (it calls for using the A/C for example which won't work in -20 weather). And then took a trip up along the highway and back along the city streets to get to his shop. He hooked me up to his OBD tester and said the car wasn't "ready" (3 tests had not been completed). He said I should drive around and come back in a few days and we'll try again. My Birthday being the next day (read as "sticker expires tomorrow") this wasn't what I wanted to hear, but it wasn't his fault. I loaded up my own OBD tester to check which tests were incomplete and found them easily enough. I went online to see if there was a way to "force" the computer to perform these tests.. Well, that was the whole point of the "drive cycle". It is supposed to present the car with all the criteria normally required to do these tests.

I continued looking for other more specific "drive cycles" (more specific to my car) and eventually found a couple that seemed rather specific. Both were so similar (in fact most shared very basic elements) that it seemed worthwhile. Essentially, I could take a little boot on the highway and then a little boot in the city and all should present itself. And so I headed toward Mississauga looking to meet as many of the criteria in the drive cycle as I could. Well, I got out to Mississauga thinking I might visit my daughter. Then it occurred to me that I was sick and it might not be the nicest time for me to visit (she and the grand kids don't want what I've got). Instead I pulled into a restaurant parking lot to grab a bite. I was a little dismayed to find that the same incomplete tests that I started with were still incomplete.

There was one criteria I had simply been unable to meet. It required me to drive at 55 MPH for 8 minutes and then slow (by coasting only, without brakes) from 55 MPH (roughly 89 KPH) to 20 MPH. The only place one can legitimately attempt this is on a 400 series highway, at an off ramp. Well, I tried. There's just nowhere that I could get away with this. If it were summer, I might have been able to do it by shouldering the car when it got slow enough, but as it sits' there no off ramp long enough to allow for this maneuver and the snow makes it unsafe to try it as a shoulder pull over. I give up on this maneuver and head home. On the way home I run into traffic I feel qualifies as "stop and go" that I need for the last part of the cycle.

All for naught. When I get home, I do a little more research about "why" it may not have worked. This is when I see the part about the gas level. So maybe It's not all for nothing. Apparently I have to waste $20 worth of gas to ensure that over the next 2 years my car won't use $20 worth of gas more than it has to. We'll see. I'm going to try again tomorrow. Lets hope I can get it "ready" in time so I don't have to pay the government more money for a trip permit to last me until I can get it "ready".

Tomorrow came. and it's my birthday (YAY! I'm Old!!) That means that my sticker has expired. That's right people, your sticker expires ON your birthday. It is not good on your birthday. If the day of your birth gets here and you have not renewed your sticker, it has expired. I know, you don't believe me. You thought it was good for the whole month. It's not. And no amount of pleading with the cop that pulls you over to give you the ticket will change his/her mind. It is your obligation to KNOW this, and judges don't generally care what you thought either. So again. My sticker has expired at this point. This means that if I want to move my car, I have to get a temporary permit. So I head off to the local ServiceOntario location and pay $15 for a 10 day temporary permit, so that I can drive my car around some more trying to get the self-tests to complete.

Now last night I took my car for yet another drive in the hope of getting some of those "self tests" out of the way (I have been waiting for these 4 tests to complete for what seems like forever). It did me no apparent good as this morning those same 4 tests are still marked as incomplete. Last night I managed to find the "proper" drive cycle for my car. And it's not as nice as all the "guides" online would have you think. A proper drive cycles is actually a VERY involved process which is done by monitoring certain criteria while driving to meet certain criteria. Now I imagine, that "doing my best" to meet the criteria without help monitoring or going fully into the detail the drive cycle required should lead me to better results than "just driving", but let me save you some time and trouble. If you're planning to "do" the drive cycle to get all your tests run, be prepared that the cycles you find online are probably very generic and do not contain the level of detail to be "foolproof" that you're going to want.

I headed out this morning with the goal of reproducing the portions of the cycle that are designed for the specific tests that I need to trigger. About 15 minutes into my drive, 3 of the 4 test results now read as completed. While I can't recall under what circumstances, I do recall that the mechanic told me that he could retest my car if only 1 test remained incomplete. And so I headed to the test shop (again). When I got there, I confirmed that he could in fact do it with only 1 incomplete. Just as long as that incomplete was not one of the parts/systems I had repaired. Of course, the incomplete was the oxygen sensor I had replaced and so, no passes for me, I'd have to drive some more to get that test "ready" (this is getting REALLY frustrating). And so I get in my car to go do some more cycle driving. I get about 1 block away, when I notice the final test is now showing complete, and so I turn around and go back.

At this point it's a simple matter to retest the car. It passes (not a conditional pass) and so I head back to the ServiceOntario office again to renew my sticker.

This process was both more and less annoying for me than it would be for many people. The fact that I own an OBD tester meant that I "knew" when the tests were marked as ready, so I didn't waste time running back to bug the mechanic without knowing. But it was more annoying because in winter, I don't drive much (or "at all" if I don't have to). So while many people would have been able to get these tests completed simply by following their normal driving patterns for a week or so, that wasn't an option for me (both because I don't drive in winter and because I had left it too long, so my sticker expired). So I still find myself extremely annoyed at the prospect of literally burning a half of a tank of gas for nothing (I drove 400 Km in total trying to get these indicators "ready").

As an interesting side note. This was the first time in quite a while that I have needed to get a temp permit (sometimes called a trip permit), and I was surprised to see that they no longer give you a sheet of paper to stick in the window. Instead, they steal your ownership and replace it with a temp ownership and give you a new sticker for your plate with a big red T where you normally see the month and year.