All Maine Matters

March 2006



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Is Big Brother Gonna Be Riding Shotgun?
by Bob Sanders

Here we go on a little educational adventure into the land of Check Engine lights and the engine management systems that are busy controlling a myriad of devices on your vehicle that keep you motoring along the highway. And, more importantly to the EPA, that part of management software that controls activation of the Check Engine light due to a malfunction in the emission control package.

It has been my experience that the public shakes out into two very distinct schools of philosophy when it comes to their reaction to this particular “idiot light” staring back at them from their instrument clusters.

One school mimics Barney Fife and acts just about as cool and collected as Barney when it was time to put his one bullet in his revolver, and the other group follows the Alfred E. Newman “What, Me Worry” indifference.

Since most emission related failures don’t make a lot of difference in vehicle performance, the majority of people simply ignore it when it becomes obvious that the car runs “just fine”.

The ostrich-like behavior of most of the public when it comes to responding to Check Engine lights would come to an end if the EPA had its druthers. The emission monitoring level that has been in place since 1996 on all vehicles sold in the USA is known as OBD II. The next generation of emission monitoring is going to b3e called OD III, and if some federal agencies were King of the World, then OBD III would have some real enforcement teeth built right into the software.

It would work something like this:

If your engine management system monitored a malfunction in the emission package that allowed emissions to exceed a predetermined maximum, the Check Engine light would be activated, just like now. But that would be just the beginning.

At the same time of light activation, the code data your system is generating when your Check Engine light is on would be relayed to a data collection center via the cell phone network.

If the code indicates malfunctions in areas of emission control, (most of them do), then this info is processed and the vehicle owner is sent a letter informing them that they have ten days to have the problem rectified and a certificate of compliance sent back to the gummint.

If you haven’t complied with all of this, the next letter in your mailbox will tell you how much your fine is. (Ain’t this getting fun?)

And, of course, if you ignore this, then things really start to get ugly.

Don’t like that version? Here’s another: Instead of the greetings from the EPA telling you how much you get to contribute to Uncle Sam, we just change the software. If you don’t send in your compliance verification, after so many days, your vehicle’s software will command a maximum vehicle speed that is progressively 5 MPH lower ever start/shutdown cycle, down to a minimum of 15 MPH. (It’s gonna take longer and longer to get to work.)

Or how about this: The software disables all the HVAC functions. You know, no heat, no air (climate dependant, of course), they’ll either freeze you out or roast you.

There was another version that was run up the ol’ flagpole that simply commanded engine shutdown after a prescribed amount of time, but that version was thrown out for fear of engine shutdown just when the wife and her six kids in the Caravan were straddling the B&A railroad tracks. (These guys are all heart!)

Is this Orwellian nightmare gonna happen? Not likely. Simply because of the legal questions of who actually owns the software when you buy your car, and for that matter, who owns the car.

You can see that if this were all to come to pass, then government agencies would be wielding considerable control over the functions of your property. Right now, you own the family sedan, but if the legal issues could be sidestepped, then the EPA would drag everybody into the Barney Fife Family of Motoring, dropping into an absolute panic every time the little yellow light came on.


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