Will Old Cars Eventually Be Banned?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

If you’re not into modern cars, you’ve always had the option of driving something else. A car without a computer, GPS, a black box or any technology that pre-empts your decisions about everything from whether and when to turn the headlights on to how fast you’re allowed to drive.

But this end-run around automotive Big Brotherism may not be possible in the years ahead. Older, pre-computer cars could be outlawed entirely.

Several steps in that direction are already under way:

* Requiring that older cars comply with modern emissions control standards —

Many states have already rescinded (or are working to rescind) the “rolling exemptions” that used to allow owners of cars more than 30 years old (or thereabouts) to skip the annual or semi-annual emissions check — on the sound reasoning that most cars that old are no longer even roadworthy (if they’re even still in existence) and the few that are tend to be rarely-driven antiques and collectibles whose actual contribution to smog/pollution is so small as to be irrelevant.

Rescinding the exemption is bad enough — because it’s purely symbolic and arguably punitive — hassling old car owners for no good reason. But demanding that older cars meet current (or even recent) emissions control standards goes way beyond mere hassle.

It is possible for the owner of a 30-year-old car to tune/adjust his vehicle so that it meets the standards in effect at the time it was built. It is impossible to make it meet stricter (often much stricter) standards that came into being years after it was built — at least, not without re-engineering the entire car.

For example, a modern fuel injection system would have to be fitted in place of the original carburetor. Catalytic converters and oxygen sensors and a computer to run the whole thing would also be needed. In all likelihood, the entire original engine/drivetrain would have to be replaced with a modern engine/drivetrain — leaving the shell of the car as the only thing “old” about it.

You’d be looking at thousands and thousands of dollars in retrofitting. To say nothing of ruining the collectibility of the car by altering its original drivetrain/systems beyond recognition.

Most people, obviously, could not afford to have their antique/collectible vehicles modified in this way. Those who could probably would not want to keep the car, if the price of doing so meant destroying everything that makes it an interesting and collectible piece of automotive history.

But the emissions assault is not the only way old cars might be done away with.

* Safety —

Virtually all modern cars have anti-lock brakes, multiple air bags, and traction/stability control. Within a few years, new cars will almost certainly be equipped with “smart” systems that let the car’s onboard electronics receive instructions about things like the speed limit of the road you happen to be driving on — and which would be capable of interceding if you tried to drive faster. Or the system could be set up so you’d have a ticket sent to you, automatically, every time you drove faster than the posted limit.

GPS — marketed as a helpful tool to aid you in getting from “a” to “b” — also means your car (and thus, you) can be tracked in real time, 24-7, every time you get behind the wheel and everywhere you go. it would also be possible — is possible — to use GPS to turn off the car’s engine. (GM’s OnStar already has the ability to open the locks remotely; shutting down the engine via the same basic technology is just as doable.)

Onboard alcohol sensors are also being developed that are expected to become standard equipment within five years. These are similar in principle to the “blow tube” interlocks required for DWI offenders but differ in two key ways. One, they are “passive” — meaning the sensors don’t require the driver to blow into a tube before the car will start. Instead, sensors built into the steering wheel or gearshift knob (or some other place) sample your skin or breath to detect alcohol without you even being aware of it. Two, the sensors will be built into all new cars — instead of affixed to the cars of DWI offenders only — nixing forever the quaint notion that only people who actually drive drunk deserve to be treated like drunk drivers.

And so it goes.

Cars that lack such systems will be targeted for being lawless — and, of course, unsafe. Since it will be economically and otherwise unfeasible to retrofit older cars with this stuff — just like modern anti-pollution equipment — the result will be a very effective indirect ban on older cars.

Ten — even five years ago — the scenarios painted above would have seemed a bit on the ragged side of paranoia. Today, the technology is all around us — and the actual efforts and public utterances of anti-old car politicians (and the automakers themselves) speak for themselves.

So, don’t say you weren’t warned. And try to enjoy your antique/classic car while you still can.

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