State offers emissions testing accommodations to some hybrid drivers amid Denver7 investigation

Drivers failed because of check engine light

The state of Colorado is offering accommodations to several drivers of hybrid vehicles that failed emissions testing amid a Denver7 investigation into its issue.

This week, the state sent letters to some drivers whose hybrid vehicles failed emissions testing due to hybrid battery problems, offering free testing at the state’s technical centers. Experts tell Denver7 Investigates the hybrid battery issues likely have little to no impact on the actual pollutants a vehicle emits, but the presence of a “Check Engine” light means the vehicle cannot pass the state’s test – which is required for vehicles eight-years-old and older to register or renew registration in Colorado.

Sara Mullins asked Denver7 Investigates for help, fearing she would have to sell her 2005 Honda Accord hybrid out of state because replacing the vehicle’s battery would cost her more than the car is worth.

“It may hurt my gas mileage, but it's not hurting the emissions requirements and it's not hurting the environment -- it's still running just fine,” Mullins said.

In 2015, she had to get a waiver from the state in order to register her car because the check engine light kept her hybrid from passing the test. She estimates a new battery would cost her close to $5,000 with labor.

Emissions tests are required every two years and each vehicle is only eligible for one waiver.

Denver7 took Mullins’s car to the mechanics at the Downing Street Garage to test the actual emissions coming from the vehicle and found they are well below the state’s limits for gas-powered vehicles.

There is no problem with the way the gasoline onboard engine is performing, running from an emissions standpoint or a drivability standpoint,” Downing Street’s David Guthrie said.

In the eyes of the state, though, the actual emissions coming from the Accord’s tailpipe do not matter. While Air Care Colorado, the private company contracted with the state to conduct emissions testing, puts gas-powered vehicles older than 11-years-old on a driving simulator called a dynamometer to measure the actual emissions coming from the tailpipe, it only tests hybrids using their on-board diagnostic computers. An illuminated check engine light will fail a hybrid every time, according to Air Care Colorado.

Denver7’s analysis of one year’s worth of testing data found about 550 hybrid vehicles failed emissions testing overall out of about 11,917 hybrids tested – for a failure rate of about 4.5 percent. A number of factors can cause a vehicle to fail including a bad gas cap, dark smoke coming from the tailpipe, on-board diagnostic alerts and check engine lights. The state estimated that over two years, “only 179 hybrids experienced battery failure codes, some of which also failed for other reasons.”

Sara Mullins said she bought a hybrid vehicle because she cares about the environment, but fears the state’s clean air policies may force her into prematurely selling a vehicle that still works just fine.

“The state needs to step back and regulate what they're actually after," Mullins said.

Lawmakers question program after Denver7 investigations

The hybrid vehicle issue is just the latest question for the federally-mandated state program that is the subject of growing questions from lawmakers.

Denver7 Investigates obtained and analyzed more than a million emissions test results for months after the mechanics at the Downing Street Garage, a repair shop registered with Air Care Colorado, came forward to say they believed the testing is costing some drivers unnecessary time and money. Denver7’s initial investigations revealed: 

  • The mechanics at Downing Street said testing in their shop would indicate a vehicle should pass an emissions test, but it would fail at the state’s testing centers.
  • Data revealed some vehicles would fail a tailpipe emissions test then pass when tested again within the same day.
  • Thousands of vehicles failed the state’s dynamometer testing to measure actual emissions even as their on-board diagnostics said they should pass.
  • One driver said she had to pay hundreds of dollars for mechanics to check her car after it failed emissions repeatedly. Her car ultimately passed without requiring any repairs beyond a new gas cap.

After Denver7’s investigations aired, state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the program deserves more scrutiny.

“I firmly believe that the people that this affects the most are the people that can't afford it -- the people that are poorer, that drive older cars, and they have to make a decision: ‘Do I want to get my car fixed or do I want to drive to work? Or do I want to buy food? Or pay my heating bill?’” said Republican Sen. John Cooke of Weld County.

“I think that what we're seeing is fewer older cars on the road and, as a result of that, the built-in mechanisms that make it such that we are not seeing all that black smoke and-- it's kind of taking care of itself,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, a Democrat from Aurora. “We've got to figure out if indeed we are doing overkill with the amount of testing and can that be reduced.”

A 2012 audit of the program prompted numerous changes and now another routine audit is underway.

The state maintains the program is one of the best in the country and most drivers get through testing with no problems and a passing grade.

“Colorado’s vehicle inspection program has several features to make it convenient and affordable. New cars are exempt from testing for seven years, the longest exemption period in the nation. We are one of the few states that use road-side screening. About one-third of the vehicles tested in Colorado use road-side screening so they do not have to visit a testing center. The cost of a Colorado emissions test is at or below the national average. The program offers temporary waivers to vehicle owners in specific circumstances where a waiver is warranted or the owner has incurred excessive repair costs,” Chris Colclasure, acting director of the state Air Pollution Control division, wrote in a statement.

Hope for Sara: State offers accommodations due to “unique technical challenges”

Some of the state’s policies on emissions testing for hybrid vehicles appear to have shifted since Denver7 Investigates began asking questions about the issue roughly three months ago, and that may mean Sara Mullins won’t have to sell her car after all.

In November, a spokesperson for Air Care Colorado told Denver7 Investigates the waiver form given to drivers said: “It is required that the battery be replaced before the next inspection cycle.”

But this week state officials said that form has changed as technology has evolved in the time since Mullins got her waiver.

“Owners of these vehicles must pass future emissions tests but do not have to prove the battery was replaced. The vehicle repair industry has developed less expensive repair options that may allow these vehicles to pass the emissions test without replacing the battery,” Colclasure said in a statement.

Mechanic Eric Sumpter at Mile Hybrid told Denver7 Investigates his shop has been helping drivers seeking those less-expensive repair options simply to pass emissions.

“A Honda Hybrid not passing emissions because of a battery code is something we have seen before,” he said. “I would not expect a Honda engine of modern technology pump out black smoke.”

Sumpter said a battery reconditioning process may turn off that all-important check engine light at a cost of several hundred dollars – compared to thousands for a new hybrid battery.

“The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment always has monitored the inspection program to adapt to emerging issues and technologies, and will continue to update the program to ensure hybrid vehicles can complete testing and/or repairs to keep them on the road,” Colclasure said.

The state said it sent the letters to six of the 50 hybrid vehicle drivers who obtained two-year waivers between the start of 2015 and the end of 2016 due to battery issues this week offering free follow-up testing.

“The free emission inspections were offered for the convenience of the vehicle owners and to further inform the department of the emission characteristics of hybrid vehicles,” the state said.

Mullins told Denver7 Investigates she now has new hope the newly-announced accommodations from the state may allow her to keep her car after all.

“If this is real, it’s a game-changer for our family,” she said. “My husband and I talked and we will be keeping our Honda instead of buying a new car.”

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