So why not an on-board-vehicle engine exhaust self-diagnosing feature?!

In the 1990s, by invitation of an employee of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, I was granted access to the company’s Barstow, California locomotive shop (repair and maintenance facility). This, of course, was only allowed while under the direct supervision of this particular railroad employee. One piece of equipment on hand was that of what I remember being a spectrometer. The instrument was used to analyze locomotive engine lubricating oil and thus was used to detect in these oils various impurities, looking for certain impurities, if I have this correct. Through analysis, if any detected impurities in the samples of engine lubricating oils tested were discovered, based on determinations made, this information no doubt could then prove invaluable in terms of overall locomotive engine performance, diagnostics and repair.

Now I can’t tell you exactly when locomotive on-board computers first saw application in U.S. railway operations (a function of which is to perform locomotive prime-mover (the engine) and other critical-component-aspect diagnostics), but my guess is this would have been sometime in the 1980s. Moreover, I cannot say for certain when computers – also used for diagnostic purposes – first showed up on motor vehicles. There is a term that is used (with an accompanying representative acronym) for this function: It is referred to as on-board diagnostics capability or OBD.

Every two years, as per California state law, my motor vehicle (as long as it is being operated) requires a Smog Check and hence a corresponding certification is given if all performance measures are met. Levels of the exhaust emissions of NOx (nitrogen oxides), HC (hydrocarbons), CO2 (carbon dioxide) and CO (carbon monoxides) are measured. As well, additional emissions-control functions and equipment are checked.

In California, vehicles are tested at two speeds (15 and 25 miles per hour) and with crankshaft spinning at 1,939 revolutions per minute at each speed.

Now remember, in California these tests are typically performed every two years. One exception would be if I intended to sell my car, then a Smog Check must be conducted before said vehicle could be sold.

At any rate, I think what would be advantageous is being able to forgo the two-year wait for such testing to take place.

And, here’s why. So, what if the vehicle falls out of spec between evaluations? I would hazard a guess, regarding older vehicles in operation especially, this does happen. Depending upon what type of abnormality exists and the extent of the abnormality, this will determine to what increased degree what type of pollution will be added to the air as a result.

If there was a capability built into the car’s on-board diagnostics system to regularly monitor engine and exhaust performance on an on-going basis, I believe this would be far reaching in helping not only spot trouble but do so at a point in time before matters get significantly worse with repairs potentially being much more extensive and repair costs potentially being much more expensive. What I am not advocating is that something of this nature be used in lieu of biennial Smog Checks. As suggested, the way I see it this is just one more tool that could be employed to detect engine trouble sooner.

Bottom line: I would certainly want to know if my motor vehicle engine is underperforming before it is due for its two-year Smog Check check-up. That way, I would know ahead of time prior to taking the car in for testing that it will either pass or it won’t. This way there is the potential for money and time to be saved, not to mention the potential for less pollution to be emitted into the air.

And, speaking of potential, I see great potential with just such a built-in feature.

For more on California’s Smog Check and STAR programs, see: “California Smog Check Program gets upgrade with ‘STAR’” here.

1 thought on “So why not an on-board-vehicle engine exhaust self-diagnosing feature?!”

  1. Why not? Here’s why: There’s no future in it. Literally.

    Who is your intended customer?

    We do have an aging fleet on the road in this country, but it’s aging because owners are not able to afford to replace their cars. If they’re going out of smog compliance is likely often due to deferred maintenance.

    People are not going to spend a lot of money on an expensive new system to tell them their cars have gone out of compliance when it’s so much cheaper to simply find out when their car is tested every two years. Particularly if they’re (like most Americans) finding it so much tougher to make ends meet.

    Carmakers are not about to put devices like this in their future cars — the cars they apply to — gasoline-powered internal combustion-driven — are not going to see these devices become useful before the cars are 8-10 years old. By then, our cars will increasingly be powered by plants other than ICE, and gasoline power will be on its way out completely.

    To be worth considering for installation in a new car, a product must be useful over decades, and this is a product for a powerplant whose time is ending… has in fact already ended. If not for subsidies to oil companies and stifling of electric and other powerplant innovations, gasoline would already be gone.

    If one could wave a magic wand and install this on cars all over America? I’d say excellent idea. But as a real-world product? No. There’s no future in it.

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