California Smog Check Program gets upgrade with ‘STAR’

California motor vehicle owners must get their cars smog certified every two years; that is, unless the vehicle is old enough to be exempted from the state’s nearly 30-year-old Smog Check Program. One year shy of celebrating its 30th anniversary, the Smog Check Program – also referred to as the Gold Shield program – meets its replacement – STAR.

A smoggy 1972 Los Angeles backdrop to U.S. flag
A smoggy 1972 Los Angeles backdrop to U.S. flag

What this means is: “The days of the old tailpipe smog check are numbered,” Alex Breitler wrote in The Stockton Record in the Dec. 27, 2012 article: “Computerized smog tests just down the road in 2013.”

“Then, [in 2013], cars model year 2000 or newer will no longer have their tailpipe emissions tested on treadmill-like machines known as dynamometers. Instead, technicians will plug into the vehicles’ on-board computers to find out how well the cars perform when they’re actually on the road.”

Why the change?

Breitler noted, “The need for change is clear, officials say. A 2009 audit found that 19 percent of cars that initially passed a smog check ended up failing a roadside inspection within a year.”

In an Oct. 18, 2012 California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board (ARB) news release, the ARB mentions, “Only stations meeting the tough new standards will be rated as ‘STAR Certified’ and permitted to inspect 1999 and older vehicles.

“The changeover to the new testing requirements will take place over the next year:

“Starting January 1, 2013:
• All 1999 model-year and older vehicles (the model years most likely to have high emissions) will be directed to new STAR inspection stations.

“September 1, 2013:
• All 2000 model-year and newer vehicles will be inspected using the [On-Board Diagnostic system]-based test.”

The change will purportedly make automobile emissions testing less expensive and more expeditious in addition to helping lower overall auto emissions in state.

More reliable auto emissions testing in less time with less incurred expense, sounds good to me!

Image above: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

About Alan Kandel

Alan turned hardscrabble technology related experience into a professional writing gig and has never looked back. Alan resides in California's heartland - the San Joaquin Valley.

44 thoughts on “California Smog Check Program gets upgrade with ‘STAR’

  1. they are attempting to drive prices lower actualy….. BUT with a catch, if you have an older vehicle 95 and older, you will have a VERY hard time passing, tech are looking for ways to fail these vehicles (and you have this “program” to thank for it. If a tech Passes your older vehicle that tech is now responsible for it for the next 2 years! meaning this: you take your 95 jeep cherokee to a smog station (star station) it passes, well two years later when its time to smog it agian, if it happens to fail for ANYTHING that tech whom passed it two years prior gets hit with a negitive ding on his record….. and if a tech is hit with a negitive ding on his/her record then that tech will also loose there job because OWNERS whom hire these techs (in order to keep the certification) have to hire techs without “dings” think of it this way…. you are a driver by trade (truck driver), you get tickets, well after idk 2-3 tickets that company has no choice but to let you go…… THE diference here is the techs have no control over a vehicle passing two yeaers later!!! so it would be like you getting tickets because other ppl in the company you work for are speeding, even though you have nothing to do with them, or better yet simply others speeding, and because others are speeding well you should be responsible and PAY. So you quit, go an work for another company….. well no can do….. that record follows YOU! you are now un-hireable by way of something you have NO CONTROL OVER. How is this fair? how is this democracy? So now I go back to your “older” vehicle…… you dont stand a chance with that older vehicle….. the state is phasing you out my friend…. and forcing the techs to do the dirty work or eles they loose there job…..

    1. The previous comment is correct BOTH technicians and the smog shop itself have a Star rating. If a technician passes a car that later fails that will be counted on the technicians record and counted on the shop that employes them. The Star program is a statistical program that uses multiple samples to assess whether a technician as well as a smog shop are testing vehicles accurately. They have statistics on car failure rates that are accumulated state wide. What they are looking for are technicians and shops whose testing pass/fail statistics by vehicle fall outside these averages. So, a single metric like tracking pass fails by tech over the testing period will take into account the vehicle that was being tested and it’s likelihood of failure. If a shop and a tech test accurately then they will not have testing statistics that fall outside Star Program parameters. You can find Star Certified stations in your area at: What is a Star Smog Station. You can find information about smog checks at Smog Check Information.

      1. Thanks for that clarification. That makes sense. The other scenario just doesn’t add up, as the two year testing regimen of course is determined upon the likelihood that ANY car might fail two years hence, not just older ones.

    1. The more Information there is available to keep cars running cleaner, the better. I am glad the information provided is helpful.

      1. I love it when people just comment with a knee jerk reaction not thinking anything through. What if you can’t afford (or just don’t want to pay for) an expensive new car, you maybe are one of the few people that are fiscally responsible OR you simply don’t make enough money so you buy cars that are 10+ years old. Then as a reward for being responsible or poor, you can’t pass the new strict smog guidelines with the older vehicle. It will likely cost to much to repair (everything to do with smog on a vehicle is marked up since you have NO CHOICE), now you can’t get to work and lose your job…so typical of our new ‘regime’. It never ceases to amaze me what people are willing to accept, this is just one step closer to being a communist ‘democracy’.

        1. From Jack Mayhoff in response to comment from Jon:

          Calm down, Chicken Little, I mean Jon…it is not that bad :/

        2. Oddly enough, you make the case for socialism. You speak of justice, in regard to economics. That certainly isn’t meted out by some egalitarianism inherent in capitalism. Personally, I think a mix is the best, but NOT regressive taxation on the poor through such regulations, which is what this Smog Check regimen has become for those in poverty, or low middle class.

          This year, my personal smog check experience has been h**l and its not over yet. A truly life disruptive experience. I started doing small things in preparation for it a few months ago knowing I was at risk of failing with my old Toyota. Sure enough, it did with both the EGR and CAT as suspect.

          Have no job, don’t have money for next month’s rent yet, and here I face getting parking tickets because now I’m a few weeks over not having yet the money for the repairs needed.

          So, I agree with you, this particular example of our system is absolutely repressive and, there has to be a more equitable way of paying for the pollution problem.

          I would propose that the travel by the wealthy, in jet airliners, private jets, etc, be taxed a certain amount for carbon impact, and that money then redistributed to those of less means to help with these expenses.

          There is NO doubt there is a public good in cleaner air. It is just an incredibly unfair burden on those of less means, when so many of these repairs can be in the hundreds.

  2. I hear that they are failing vehicles under the new STAR program that in fact meet all emissions standards applicable as of the model year that the vehicle was manufactured, using the excuse that statistics say your vehicle is emitting more than comparable vehicles (even though it meets all emissions standards applicable as of its date of manufacture). Is this true?

    1. My car is one of those that failed the test but actually passed the smog portion quite well. It is an over 20 year old economy car but with low mileage by California standards (under 100K), and mechanically been pretty well taken care of. It failed because it was 5 degrees later than spec (the test requires +/- 3). It’s easy enough for me to fix, but now I have to advance the timing which will increase the CO and Hydrocarbons. It might give me more power, although I have to check for knock but it was powerful enough for my use previously. It’s strange that what the goal of the old test, reduce emissions (which I support), now is just to conform to spec and not really about lowering emissions anymore. Also, I’m now missing clips and had to fix disconnected hoses due to the more intrusive tests. It sounds more like car dealership associations here in California got their wish to get people to buy new cars.

    2. Yes it is true.

      The keep lowering the amount of emissions but do not grandfather in older vehicles that would pass the emissions standards at the time they were built.

  3. @ Badtux

    If you are aware of vehicles failing the under the STAR program that as you indicated “meet all emissions standards applicable as of the model year that the vehicle was manufactured,” then to try to learn exactly why such vehicles failed seems a logical if not appropriate next step.

    Have you tried contacting the Department of Consumer Affairs’ Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR)?

    BAR has a resource called: “STAR Program Fact Sheet,” which provides general information.

    Also, contained in some of the previous comments to this “California Smog Check Program gets upgrade with ‘STAR'” post are a few resources with corresponding links.

  4. I find it ironic that an automotive industry that has suppressed alternative sources of fuel for the last 75 years and continues to build cars, yes even hybrids which run on fossil fuels are requiring me to PAY for a smog check. Really, if there is such a concern about pollution there would have been changes DECADES AGO. This isn’t about protecting the environment, it’s a REVENUE CALL, that’s all it is. The car manufacturers should pay for the smog check, not us- and while they’re at it- pay for the gas too.

    1. Seems like your really concerned that you need to pay for something. Like many of those with a liberal leaning this is at the core of their concern. The “government”, “business” should pay. This allows the dual position of caring only for yourself while at the same time appearing to care for others.
      There is no perfect solution in this world. Hard core conservatives will take the fact a smog check program exists at all as an issue. In reality while imperfect these regulations help remove tons of pollution from our air each year and the STAR program is an effort to ensure that all of us that benefit from our transportation infrastructure share in the burden of its costs.

  5. To NNUS’s comment. {all of us that benefit from our transportation infrastructure [should] share in the burden of its costs.} Careful. Wouldn’t want the “right” to be accused of “socialism”.

  6. If the smog program was truly about controlling emissions it would be a simple tailpipe sniff test and done. No visual or other criteria, if it burns clean it burns clean and that’s it. But when you put the least valuable/intelligent people of society in a position of decision making power overcomplicated ridiculousness is what you get.

    1. I saw that first hand.

      About 15 years ago I took a 1984 Toyota Tercel for testing.

      These cars had carburetors and distributors and we would tune them by ear.

      Well it pass the tailpipe test just fine but failed the ‘visual’ because the timing was not where the book said it should be.

      So I tweaked the timing, it pass all the test, but put out MORE emissions when I tuned it their way vs mine.

  7. Smog Check is truly about controlling emissions. That is why a simple tailpipe sniff test doesn’t cut it anymore. It is not 1968. It is 2014. Do a bit of research and you will find FTP and SHED emissions testing completed during the certification of your modern vehicle. Your car was designed to operate at better than cert standards for all of its useful life. You just have to take care of it. If it is broken – fix it.

    Today’s air quality is substantially better than it was 3 decades ago, even though there are way more cars on the road and way more people living in California. Cars have gotten cleaner, fuels have gotten cleaner, industry and power generation has gotten cleaner. Yeah, big bad government regulations had something to do with that.

    Left unregulated I’d still be driving my carburetted ’68 Camaro, with a 327 V-8 and a Hurst shifter. I’d be cruising the streets of LA listening to 70s Springsteen on my 8-track, oblivious to the fact that I can’t even see the Hollywood sign because of the smog. The car would be spewing out brain damaging lead, cancer causing benzene, and loads of asthma causing particulates. I’d fill that tank for $4.28, get 10 miles to the gallon and happy as a PIS.

    Of course kids breathing this stuff won’t do so well in school. Maybe the long term low level lead poisoning might cause a bit more brain damage – resulting in more criminal behaviour. Cancer rates would go up, so maybe people could start smoking again because it wouldn’t matter.

    Maybe you don’t have young kids or grandparents with breathing issues. But, thousands die every year from air pollution. Perhaps no one will notice a few thousand more. Besides the doctor puts on the certificate that the cause of death was complications due to respiratory problems not air pollution… Go ask Kaiser for their statistics. You might be surprised to find that the deaths and admissions due to respiratory problems increase during smog days in the basin.

  8. What I did not know until my most recent smog test is that CA is reducing the emissions standards for vehicle already built!

    For example:

    HC Max 15 mph by year

    2005 95
    2013 81
    2015 77

    So it’s dropped 5% in the past 2 years and 19% in the past 10 years.

    My 1995 Saturn SL2 w/ 130k miles got a 77 this time. At this rate she will fail in 2 years, a shame because she purrs like a kitten.

    Perhaps they think it’s better for the environment to build a new vehicle than keep this one on the road that is driven less than 5k a year.

  9. Your Saturn might not fail 2 years from now…

    The smog test for a 1995 car is designed to end as soon as the standards are met. In your case it is likely that if the standard was say 74 ppm of HC, your vehicle would run on the treadmill for another 5 or 10 seconds before passing the test at 74 ppm. A properly functioning catalytic converter will continue to improve efficiency up until it reaches maximum operating temperature.

    Your 1995 Saturn was designed to meet standards of around 5 – 15 ppm. The fail limits are set many times higher to ensure that a failed test really meant the car had an emissions problem.

    Keep your car well maintained and it will pass many more smogs. Everyone else will breathe easier.

  10. Love the conspiracy theory comments. Especially the one about this being just a revenue generator when anyone can see, actually see with bare naked eyes, that the air is cleaner than it was 8-10 years ago during the SUV craze.

    I remember looking down at the I-15 from the mountains and just seeing a nasty yellow haze in the valley. I rarely see that now. I remember not being able to ever see Mt. Baldy from Newport Beach. I see it all the time now.

    The cry babies in the comments here need to move to Mississippi or some backwards state like that. Get out of California please.

    1. I love clean air as much as the next guy, but there are some California smog regulations that are ridiculous. I drive an 86 Mustang 5.0, which came from the factory with exhaust headers and an h-pipe with two catalytic converters.

      All of the mods on the car are CARB-legal, and the car would easily pass a current smog test at the sniffer with a dual-catted h-pipe (it easily passed two years ago with flying colors). However, some pinhead in Sacramento decided it would be neat if my car was required to have a 4-cat h-pipe, which it never came with and is not needed to meet actual emission requirements. So, when one of the cats on my dual-catted H-pipe went bad, I had to spend $1,000 to have a 4-cat h-pipe custom fabricated, instead of $300 to have the bad catalytic converter replaced. That’s $700 wasted.

    2. Nice WTF. Yur name says it all. Expand your horizons and travel a bit. The “backwards” states you refer to have blue skies and clean air. The point is you arrogant @$$ is maintain your vehicle, invest in repairs if needed, and do your part. Emissions are important, unneeded slandered is not.

  11. Thank you for all this great knowledge. I deal with this on a daily basis because I own the local El Cajon DMV alternative. Prior to reading this article, I was uneducated regarding the smog policies other than the fact that you have to smog every 2 years for older vehicles. Frustrating on both ends! I would like to help. If your vehicle is having trouble passing smog please contact me.

  12. My 1996 Voyager 4 cyl minivan has been hit with the “STAR Station” requirement every year for ~8 yrs, though it has passed very well (~4x headroom) ever since a “barely passed” test 10 yrs ago. After that test, I found the catalytic converter was cracked inside and replaced it (had wondered where that rattle was coming from). I am researching why they continue to harass me ever since. I read that it may simply be that model is targeted in general. The engine runs fine and I am sure it pollutes much less than the monster trucks and SUV’s that get almost a free pass.

    Otherwise, I have diesel and 60’s cars that are exempt from testing. Unlike most classic car owners, I think there should be some tests for classics. The main problem is fools who insist on installing a wild camshaft so their classic has that “race engine” feel, which is a rough idle w/ noise from intake/exhaust overlap, and pouring out noxious fumes so nobody can even stand near the car without gagging. They do this because “it is legal”, and after-market companies promote it. Some people need laws to act smart.

    1. My buddy has a ’35 all steel 5 window Ford w/ a 350.

      Puts out less smog than my friends Prius.

      How?

      The Prius is a daily driver, the Ford gets driven a few times a year.

  13. It’s time for a class action lawsuit against these incompetent government clowns. They fail cars that are not smogging and force you to waste time and money to fix the computer crap that they put on your car. It used to be that there was a complicated test station at a smog station. Now they’ve put complicated test stations (that you have to pay for to maintain) on all the millions of cars. They should only be allowed to require that your car does not smog. Now they force two requirements on you- your car can’t smog and you have to pay to maintain the complicated, expensive computer crap they put on your car. TIME FOR A CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT for anyone who has had to pay extra when their car wasn’t smogging. You have to pay extra to the car repair shops and the car repair industry was directly involved in creating this program- THAT’S FRAUD.

  14. Wait till you have a do a Smog Check after your battery has died. Your catalytic computer will need to go through the motions all over again and this can take forever. I’ve failed twice on my car that has only 16,000 miles on it. Now I stuck in bureaucratic h**l. There’s a video on Youtube from a guy that use to do the inspection telling you how to get the computer to go through all the checks. Part of it he tells you to not use the brakes when coming to a stop. F U California! If I hurt myself or someone else having to do this garbage, I’m certainly going to let Cali know about it.

  15. Yes it is true.
    The keep lowering the amount of emissions but do not grandfather in older vehicles that would pass the emissions standards at the time they were built.

  16. The majority of the smog stations exhibit very skeptical business practices…advertise one charge of 39 dollars online and arrive at the shop the price has doubled..five shops all various charges and opinions in one day. The problem is the state has found another way to make a buck at the expense of consumers. One price for services should be the standard for a state required service.

  17. I totally agree with John. The new smog equipment should have reduced the price of the smog and instead, it was increased. The only person that ever pays is the consumer.

  18. What happen if you have a bad light gauge. All emission from tail passed with flying colors, but the light bulb/sensor is bad. That mean paying 200.00 for the gauge light dashboard and another 200.00 for a mechanic to install. Serious problem here over a light that will cost 400.00 when all emission passed.

  19. I have a 1998 Ford Escort, in California. I had to get a “STAR” “(or otherwise “special”) smog check in California in 2012 and 2014 and now I have to get it again in 2016. If any one tries to bulls**t me into thinking this is “fair”, I’m simply not going to believe them, but will dump them into the dustbin of advocates of mindless and uncaring bureaucracy.

    I was just up in Alaska visiting my son. There used to be smog checks up there, but the people apparently revolted against the obvious mindless bureaucracy, and now they don’t have smog checks at all anymore. They still have the “spirit of ’76” up there, apparently. I’d agree that air quality is important, but what’s happened to me the last two times and now again for a third time just fills me with contempt for a mindless bureaucracy that cares nothing about the realities of people’s lives, but expects private citizens to pay for arbitrary and uncaring bureaucratic decisions.

    1. @ Jeff Wilson:

      I’m 63 years old and I moved to California in 1977. I’ve lived in several different communities in state: Fremont, Fresno, Long Beach, Mt. View and San Luis Obispo (for college).

      Fresno, where I currently reside, has this country’s worst fine particulate matter pollution and is among the worst for ozone, the foundation for smog.

      As long as I’ve owned automobiles, to my knowledge, I have not had one that failed smog testing, that is, until just recently when such was STAR-tested. In response, the mechanic who I go to when it comes to having my car repaired, took the car to another STAR-certified testing facility. This time, at the different testing center, with not a single adjustment or modification made, my car passed.

      Why?

      I suspect I did not allow the car to warm sufficiently before being tested the first time around and hence the reason for failure.

      What this tells me is that, my car, until it is sufficiently warmed up, it pollutes at levels above what is allowed. If this is indeed the case, then my car (and presumably many others of the same model year and older), at least for some of the time while driven on the road, is putting out higher than acceptable pollution levels.

      So, in a way, I’m glad my car did not pass the initial STAR testing procedure. I now have a better idea of the way, exhaust-emissions-wise, my car is performing. Short of purchasing a less-polluting vehicle or my vehicle getting a tuneup, I’m not sure what I can do that will help regarding engine exhaust performance improvement.

      On the other hand, when my car was tested using the Gold Shield testing method, it passed first time, every time. The STAR testing procedure, if nothing else, appears to be an improvement over the Gold Shield testing method and hence the “upgrade” reference in the above article’s title.

      If, in the final analysis, more vehicles on roads become cleaner-operating and better performing over time, then I see the whole vehicle-testing program as an asset and benefit. If not, then maybe I can understand why it is you view this situation as you do.

  20. i understand because its a law you need your cars inspected. And if they dondt pass you either need to fix it or get a new car.? But the next new car will fail sometime and same thing again and again. My question is why car makers make cars to polute? Thats not our fault make the car makers fixed it. Or if gasolines cause it make the government pay for it or who ever is responsible why the consumer has to always pay the price? Enough with the taxes and the most expensive sticker in the planet that expires every year thanks who ever invented the calendar.. But thats another story….????

  21. I have been trying to have my car to pass the smog test for over 4 months. I am told there is nothing wrong with your car just keep driving it. I have performed the ridiculous Basic Drive Cycle twice and have basically put close to 1,000 miles on my car and it still won’t pass. Now as of 11/22/16 my car will be illegal to drive. I have a 2008 Nissan Rogue with only 50,000 miles on it. DMV doesn’t give extensions anymore. We are only allowed one Temporary Operating Permit that only gives you 30 days to try and get the car to pass. I am at my wits end. What the h**l!

  22. Ah, I see there is no shortage of gross speculation and hyperbole in the comments. Show me an invoice where they charge $400 to change a dashboard indictor bulb. How is the auto industry complicit in the SMOG test requirements? You do realize it’s the state government that mandates this and not the Auto makers. They don’t get a “cut” of the “profits”. Also, “Why do the automakers make cars that pollute” is hilarious! You’re going to need to raise your class action lawsuit against the inventor of the internal combustion engine, or wait! Why not sue the dinosaurs for turning into such nasty hydrocarbons that give off deadly chemicals when burned? Of course, they’d just say, “I didn’t tell you to burn my carcass a million years later, jerk!”

  23. Im a smog tech and station owner I think STAR is a bunch of crap that puts good people out of work. BAR should be investigated. Why is it the responsibility of the smog tech to make sure a car that passed 2 years prior be the fault of the smog tech who inspected? and, then if fails 2 years later they get dinked and lose there jobs?? That doesn’t sound fair. CA should put people out of work for no fault of there own!!!!!!!! All smog techs should boycott the BAR!!!!! BAR UNFAIR TO SMOG TECHS TRYING TO FEED THERE FAMILIES.. I say move out of CA.. this state doesn’t care about the middle class working guy!!!!

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