Another Hidden California Tax

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California DMV home page another hidden california tax

California DMV home page

Before you can register a car in California, you may be required to have it checked for emissions (“smog-checked”). This week, I discovered another hidden California tax caused by this requirement. And, as an added bonus, this tax also increases total vehicle emissions!

A Very Dead Battery

The tale begins with our 1996 Dodge Caravan. On Tuesday, September 16 I decided to get the smog check done. This van is driven infrequently, so I wasn’t surprised when the battery was dead. Luckily, the registration wasn’t due until September 22, so I called AAA, got the battery jumped, and started the car. While Calvin (the great guy from Ellison’s Towing in Mountain View) did the paperwork, I casually mentioned that I needed the car running to get it smog-checked.

Calvin looked a little nervous. He suggested I call my smog place (yes, there is one place that does all our checks). His fear was that the battery had been so dead that it may have wiped out some memory in the car’s computer. He suggested that I might need to drive the car about 100 miles.

I called my smog guy (Mohamad at Mountain View Smog Check Only) and explained the situation. After inquiring about the year, make, and model, he said, “120 miles, can’t all be in one trip or on the same day.”

I was stunned. This van gets pretty good mileage, but even at 20 mpg that’s six gallons of gas, about $21 at today’s prices. But, of course, the serious cost was the three hours I spent driving around aimlessly. And, naturally, all that driving added to vehicle emissions!

Now there’s a tax! The main cost is the consumer’s time — at least $300 in my case. Plus the mileage. In 2013 the IRS mileage deduction rate was $0.565 per mile for a total of $67.80.

The Technical Details

After a bit of Bing searching, I found articles at and that explain what’s going on. It turns out that the car’s computer keeps track of “drive cycles,” a sequence of driving styles that must be completed before the car can be smog-tested. From

For most cars, short drive cycles are published individually for this or that emissions system. Hyundai doesn’t publish any for my car. What’s almost worse is that instead of using those short cycles, Hyundai uses two humongous all-purpose sequences. One is supposed to emulate city driving, the other highway driving. Each of these tests takes about ½ hour. They are neither easy or safe.

I had a savvy friend ride shotgun. I drove, and he watched the road, read the instructions to me, and timed the intervals with a stopwatch. The whole procedure is nerve-wracking. It includes speeding up, accelerating and decelerating according to a strict schedule, and maintaining unsafe speeds on both city streets and highways. For example, the company seems fond of 40 MPH: that’s over the speed limit on the streets, and slow enough to get you rammed on the highway. It was a teeth-clenching trip.


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About Tony Lima

Retired after teaching economics at California State Univ., East Bay (Hayward, CA). Ph.D., economics, Stanford. Also taught MBA finance at the California University of Management and Technology. Occasionally take on a consulting project if it's interesting. Other interests include wine and technology.