Jim McFarland
October 27, 2010

Regulating Hot Rod Emissions
Government regulations continue filtering into the hot-rod community. Our purpose here is to provide a chronology of events helpful to understanding the current regulatory landscape and then look into the future of what enthusiasts can expect. You will become aware of the role enthusiasts can play in this process, in addition to steps that have been and are being taken by the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association on behalf of the users of their products.

It has been approximately 40 years since the government agency that became California's Air Resources Board first met with specialty aftermarket parts manufacturers. The agency had become aware that non-stock, emissions-related aftermarket parts were being installed on California vehicles and wanted to establish guidelines for their use. About a dozen specialty parts manufacturers attended the meeting that was convened by the agency setting "design limits" based on the most robust parts options available from the original equipment manufacturers.

In other words, if an OEM offered any versions of "high-performance" parts as options to stock counterparts, emissions-related specialty aftermarket parts would not be allowed to exceed the design criteria of higher performance OEM components. For example, multiple carburetors, dual exhausts, camshaft specifications and similar limits to other such aftermarket parts would be the rule.

Moving into the '70s and '80s, enthusiasts saw and experienced the impact of OEM emissions controls. Federal emissions standards imposed on the OEM were mandated in shorter time periods and included the downsizing of displacements, reducing vehicle weight, redesigning engine packages and making companion changes requiring years to accomplish. As a result, we entered the emissions "band-aid" era involving short-term modifications the OEMs could make in order to meet required standards. Air pumps, carburetors with limited adjustments, exhaust gas recirculation, catalytic converters, rear gear changes to reduce on-road engine speeds and comparable "quick fixes" were imposed on consumers and enthusiasts, the net effect being both a real and perceived reduction in prior vehicle performance.

At the enthusiast level, emissions controls were perceived as performance-reducing components. It would be another ten years before redesigned engine packages with computer controlled electronic fuel injection and higher overall combustion efficiency would restore "high performance" to the OEM community while meeting even more stringent emissions and fuel economy requirements.

Even during these years, and flying somewhat under the radar, there was the need for specialty aftermarket parts manufacturers to begin adapting to new OEM technologies. Failure to do this impacted two areas in particular. One dealt with attempts to develop products with consumer value in the face of much more daunting engineering tasks. The other was the requirement that certain emissions standards be met, because by this time both the CARB and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were aware that improperly designed emissions-related parts could take an otherwise certified vehicle out of compliance.

At this point, SEMA took a proactive role in working directly with the CARB to create a method by which emissions-related specialty aftermarket parts could be brought into compliance. While the EPA had its own anti-tampering provisions contained in the federal law affecting aftermarket parts, the CARB had taken a more aggressive position in regulating these components. Working directly with CARB staff, SEMA helped establish an emissions testing program whereby emissions-critical parts could be made legal for on-road use in California. Ultimately, EPA would recognize this certification for use elsewhere in the country.

At the time, as now, the so-called CARB Executive Order certification process that was created embodied test procedures required of the OEMs when certifying new vehicles. Today, SEMA continues working with both the CARB and EPA to help enable its membership to achieve emissions compliance for specialty aftermarket parts, all of which has a direct impact on several segments in the performance enthusiast community.