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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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Monday, September 29, 2003

On the drive to work today it dawned on me that I had a mere two days to bring my car through NJ DMV inspection. Of course, as anyone knows, getting through inspection around the end of the month can be a real pain in the ass and I expected today to be no exception. In fact, I figured tomorrow would be worse, so after checking in at the office, I drove over to the local DMV inspection station.

Before I tell you how much fun I had today, a little history is in order. NJ's DMV program was outsourced to a company called Parsons. They were given the charter to reduce costs and improve efficiency, while at the same time creating a new, more rigorous inspection process that would ensure that NJ could meet federal clean air standards. To make a long story short, they wasted more than $400 million of NJ taxpayer money before the State had to step in. What did we get for our money? A system that ran Windows 98(!!), crashed constantly (erasing several cars' worth of inspection data each time), a process that took far longer than that it replaced, and dynos that wouldn't run properly in cold weather. Why am I telling you this? Because recently they washed their hands of the dyno tests and replaced them with analysis of the OBD (On Board Diagnostic) computer interface for all cars 1996 and later.

My 1998 E36 is equipped with OBD II, the second generation system. These systems have a standard physical interface and communications protocols. That means that a mechanic can use the same cable and computer software to interact with the OBD, which explains why the DMV chose to pick on 96+ model year cars even though older cars had OBD functionality. The OBD connector in an E36 BMW is mounted inverted underneath the dash just to the right of the driver's side kick panel. BMW was kind enough to put a little access door over it with a "lock" that could be actuated by the edge of a coin or flat blade screwdriver. The access door is labeled with three big raised letters "OBD". Pretty hard to miss.

As I waited for the car at the end of the inspection line, thinking everything went reasonably well, I went into shock when the line guy walked toward my car with a big red REJECTED sticker. I said "Woa!...failed? For what??. "Uh, we couldn't find the OBD connector." he said. Sure enough, the inspection report said "OBD: missing". A few choice words ensued, and I told the guy if he couldn't find it, it was his problem...I wanted my "Passed" sticker now and he could sort out his lack of data two years hence. After it became clear he wasn't going to give me what I wanted, I asked to see the manager, who then spoke with the line people. They then confessed the OBD connector wasn't "missing", just "inaccessible".

Thinking that these people had just gone off the deep end, I crawled under the dash to look more closely at the receptacle. Sure enough, the receptacle was mounted facing rearward, rather than straight down so it was impossible to insert the plug. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, so I called my mechanic and asked him about it. He said he would have to take a look at it to recommend a course of action, so I left the inspection facility with a glaring "police magnet" affixed to my windshield and drove to the dealership.

As usual, it didn't take my mechanic long to figure out what needed to be done. He used a #1 philips screwdriver to pull two screws out of the OBD receptacle mounting flanges, rotated the receptacle such that it would face straight down, and reinstalled the screws. Well, DUH...if I knew it would be that easy, I would have done it myself, but given my disgust and haste to bring my conflict with DMV personnel to an end (if only for today), I didn't see the screws and just figured BMW had some special right-angled cable assembly for this application. Oh well, live and learn.

My mechanic's only comment was that the 5 series cars have the connector facing aft, while those in 3 series cars are supposed to face downward, so the assembly line guy in Regensburg must have had a few too many lagers that day. Whatever..the problem was solved and I was on my way back to the inspection station within 5 minutes. Fortunately, the reinspection only took about 10 minutes.

Moral? If you live in a state where they have recently instituted OBD analysis as part of the inspection process, you might want to pull that cover and take a quick look at the OBD receptacle to ensure it's installed properly BEFORE you show up at the inspection station. That simple check could save a lot of time and aggravation.

Mileage 84085, Cost $0 (not including my time and aspirin, of course).