MAX Update No. 42: Is MAX Illegal?

Reader Contribution by Staff

“MAX is legal at the state level but illegal at the federal level.”

Now that’s a bold statement. Unless this is your first day on the Internet, you’re probably aware that many bold statements are opinions presented as facts, and many unsupported statements lack the expected “LOL” at the end, but this particular example deserves our attention.

This bold statement is a reader comment from Update No. 39: Who Smoked the Electric Car? We were discussing electric cars back then, but the conversation did drift some. (In summary: I think small is beautiful for electric cars, too: Efficient EVs use fewer resources than inefficient EVs, and battery power is no excuse for driving oversized and inefficient vehicles.) This particular drift has come up before, and raises a question worth exploring: Did I violate a Federal law when I built MAX? A closely related and even more important question: Will you be violating a Federal law if you build a MAX of your own?

As best as I can tell (and believe me, I’ve looked hard and long for an answer to this question), the answer is no. MAX does not appear to be violating any Federal law, statute or regulation, nor does the EPA have regulations involving home built or experimental automobiles. It does have strict emissions regulations for mass-produced cars sold to the public in large quantities. The EPA raises the bar on those regulations every year, but the current (and future) production car rules are not applicable to America’s vast used car fleet, much less to cars built one at a time for their owners’ enjoyment.

The challenge comes from state regulations for home-built cars. Guess how many different sets of automobile registration and equipment regulations there are among the 50 states in the United States. Go ahead, take your time, give it a guess.

If you guessed 50, you’re a good guesser! Wow, 50 different sets of rules. Every state I’ve researched (and I’ve researched a bunch of ’em because Kinetic Vehicles customers come from all over the place) has a way to register a home-built car, but no two ways are the same.

The most interesting rule set (in my opinion) comes from California, where the plain vanilla rule says that home-built cars have to pass smog tests appropriate to the year of the car’s engine. But there’s a spumoni-with-sprinkles rule called SB500. The SB stands for Special Built, and the first 500 applicants each year have permission to build a car that meets emissions standards for whatever year model the car most resembles. Yes, I know California probably has the strictest smog standards in the world, and no, I’m not making this up.

That’s right, if you have an SB500 permit and you build a car that looks like a 1961 Lotus Seven (and gosh, MAX sure looks like one of those), you have to meet California’s 1961 emissions regulations, which were zip/zilch/nada.

To learn the rules in your state, tell the folks at your local DMV that you’re building a car, and ask them how to register it. If they can’t tell you, contact me via the Kinetic Vehicles website and I should be able to point you to someone in your area who has done it.

And by the way, I’ll have you know that MAX has lower exhaust emissions per mile than the majority of diesel cars sold in America in 2009. That’s because the majority of diesel cars sold in America in 2009 were ’80s-era Volkswagen Rabbits sold on Craigslist. LOL.

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