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Motorhead Memo: What are they sniffing?

By Kip Woodring

As of this writing, there’s much speculation, hand wringing, bitching, and impotent anguish, but damn little insight regarding an issue that’s looming large for bikers in California. Since what comes to pass in this state tends to wind up being the way it is in all states, maybe we should talk about it—now! In case we need to do something about it later… or sooner!

I’m referring to SB435, a state bill intended to implement periodic emissions testing for (Class 3) motorcycles, built after model year 2000, by no later than 2012. For a blow-by-blow update on the progress of this bill, you can refer to the internet or any number of other news and information sources that relish bandying details. However, for our purpose here, suffice to say it likely won’t pass as originally written. Predominant thinking is that’s a good thing—we dodged the bullet for the time being. The nutshell outlook, while the SB435 is being discussed by the Senate and cussed by us, is that instead of a practically untenable biannual check, we’ll get officers of the law empowered to write citations for smog violations. Yay!

Before we continue, here are some random (but relevant) points to lock into the ol’ gray matter:

  1. The motive for SB435 has at least as much to do with a perceived revenue stream for a bankrupt state as it has to do with clean air. Any means to an end doesn’t mean much if in the end we don’t have the means.
  2. The reason it’s largely impractical to implement as originally written, ironically, has to do with the specific emissions requirements as established by the same bureaucrats. Namely, a two-tier standard—one for pre-2008 models and another for post 2008—measured in grams per kilometer. In other words, compliance cannot be accurately checked via a simple tailpipe “sniff test!”
  3. Short of “enrolling” existing motorcycle shops with dynos to do the testing, accurate verification of their own regulations would require purpose-built check facilities with dynomometers, or the addition of these to automotive check stations. Neither California, nor most any other state in the union (under the current state of affairs), can afford this… in more ways than one.
  4. Emissions standards, however tested, are designed to apply to so-called “cruise” modes—essentially, the first 30 percent of throttle, where over 90 percent of street riding is done. Fuel maps or jetting that alter the mandatory 14:7 air/fuel ratio in this cruise mode (the most stringent of the standards for motorcycles) are generally not effective in adding power. Correct tuning principles add fuel—to match added air-flow capabilities—only in full power situations using the other (exempt) 70 percent of that throttle. Therefore, emissions compliance is largely unaffected. In other words, even hot-rodded motorcycles are capable of passing a legitimate smog test.
  5. Police officers, should they become empowered to cite smog violations, should be aware of all this, but likely will not care. At this point, it appears that the most current form of SB435, if passed, will mandate they focus on equipment violations, particularly catalytic converters—or the lack thereof—although air cleaners and EFI tuning modules, among others, might well be on the list.
  6. The Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association (SEMA) has already fought to prove that aftermarket stuff can meet emissions standards in the car world. Why should the motorcycle world be different? Any form of “if it ain’t stock—it ain’t legal” legislation applicable only to motorcycles will ultimately be challenged in court and overturned as discriminatory.
  7. Motorcycles are a hobby. Emissions testing could easily result in fewer motorcycles being manufactured, sold and ridden in any state that insists on cumbersome, expensive, unreasonable, ineffective and unnecessary mechanisms to enforce ambiguous standards.
  8. Motorcycle manufacturers, dealers and riders grasp the intricacies, implications and impact of emissions standards testing and enforcement on a more personal and intimate level than bureaucrats. Bureaucracies are far more cohesive, empowered and obstinate. Don’t try to follow the logic. Follow the money. Follow the political posturing.

We might well have dodged this bullet, but the gun is still loaded and pointed right at us.

Oddly, at the end of the day, and should it come down to it, I fear arbitrary police enforcement of equipment violations more than standardized tests. For one thing (as with helmet enforcement), cops are not experts on what’s actually legal. They only deal with whether you’ve got one on or not, and whether they like it or not. If the average police officer applies the same criteria to a catalytic converter (assuming they even know which machines require them and which do not), you really wind up with a loud pipe ticket masquerading as an emissions violation. The biggest difference in the end is likely to be that the former is a “fix-it” ticket and the latter an expensive fine… or worse. Every scenario is inclined to being far more subjective than objective, at best. The whole thing gets even more complicated when it comes to air cleaners, since many that are not stock are, in fact, totally emissions legal—unless the officer disagrees or simply doesn’t know any better. There’s nothing different where EFI tuning devices are concerned, since more and more of these are compliant. Is the burden of proof on you if you use these devices, or on the officer to know what’s what? It’s a mess and not likely to get better before it gets worse—if—that’s the way things go. Maybe the thinking is there’s more money to be made from tickets than testing.

On the other hand, as specious and deeply flawed as it is under the current bill, there can’t be too much doubt that the day of motorcycle emissions testing will eventually dawn. Trust me; it’s not the standards, it’s the procedure that matters—and we can only work at making sure that any test applied is fair, uniform, accurate and flexible. My worry is more along the lines of logistics than anything else.

There are far fewer motorcycles, spread over a much larger area, than is the case with automobiles. Suppose the Guv’mint does put dynos in existing auto test facilities. How many will it take to keep you or I from having to travel 50-100 miles or more, at great inconvenience, to get our testing done? A thousand? Two thousand? Ten thousand? Who’s gonna design and install all these dynos, and/or the mods required to put motorcycles on equipment they already have? What will a test cost? Where’s the revenue stream? Which way will the revenue actually flow for the first decade or so of this nonsense? How much will air a trifle cleaner really cost? Is the price, not just in dollars (or sense), worth paying?

How about if the powers that be decide the grams-per-kilo standard is too exotic after all, and revert from whatever they’ve been sniffing to straight tailpipe sniffing? (Quit that laughing; you know what I mean!) More existing stations could handle that, for fewer dollars and much less hassle to us. Yet, any test like that would, by nature, need to be a simple pass/fail. None of this altered-equipment gamesmanship would or should apply. If the machine runs clean, it shouldn’t matter how it gets the job done, or what parts are used to do it.

Meanwhile, about the best we can do is realize the intent of SB435 is a harbinger of some form of compliance enforcement and do what we can (contact politicians, join the AMA and/or ABATE) to ensure motorcycle emissions tests that don’t stink!

Of course, I suppose we could all wake up tomorrow in a parallel universe, where true logic and a complete understanding of the clean air situation prevails at last. In that universe, the politicians would go after the worst offenders—the so-called stationary polluters (like oil refineries and factories), and ignore the hordes of lobbyists (from same) that get them elected and grease the skids for their unreasonable oppression of disorganized minorities (like motorcyclists) to do the job correctly and honestly—once and for all. What are the odds?

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