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Is Tuning Illegal in California?

Here at StickerCity, not only do we get typical questions like “how should I maintain my paint protection film?”  since we specialize in paint protection, but we also get questions regarding all types of car customizations. Car customization can be a bit more difficult here in California since we have particularly strict regulations, and tuning might be one of the most difficult areas to navigate legally.

Car tuning includes a series of modifications to meet performance requirements beyond those that the original manufacturer intended to meet. These enhancements achieved through car tuning may include those related to engine performance, handling and fuel economy improvements, and smoother driving.

Engine and handling enhancements are particularly popular, being one of the top vehicle customization trends right now in Los Angeles. Be it for racing, competition, or another reason, it’s in your best interest to figure out what is and is not legal in California related to vehicle modifications and tuning.

Engine Tuning

Engine tuning can include several things depending on the goal of the vehicle owner. Examples include forced induction systems like turbochargers and superchargers, or even modification of engine control units. Engine control units electronically control the balance between engine performance and emissions, effectively putting a cap on your engine’s ability. Through mapping, tuning can override the engine control unit at the expense of increased emissions.

Because of the way engine tuning can affect emission levels, tuning your engine is often one of the illegal car modifications in Los Angeles, California. Internal and external modifications to your engine, such as pistons and intakes, have to be certified for use in California or have an exemption from the California Air Resource Board. Additionally, engines have to be of the same age or newer model year of your vehicle to ensure they are meeting the same or better emission standards as the vehicle originally met when manufactured, as well as pass smog checks.

Suspension Tuning

Suspension tuning is a type of tuning that helps with the handling of your vehicle. For example, having shorter, more rigid springs, helps with cornering. More rigid sway bars also can help with cornering. Like everything, suspension tuning comes at a price. Both air or hydraulic suspension systems that are used in a way other than is intended can be deemed as unsafe and, in turn, illegal.

Besides ensuring that your vehicle will meet safety standards, you also have to watch out for other regulations. For example, your vehicle can only be so low before it can be deemed illegal. This is one more example of why you should ensure your customization shop is knowledgeable about all of the laws, statutes, and regulations regarding tuning and mods in general.

California Air Resource Board

The main thing you have to be sure of is that your vehicle’s tuning will comply with the standards of the California Air Resource Board, also known as CARB. The California Air Resource Board has been put in charge of mitigating the harmful effects of air pollution on the population of California. It is also responsible for the development of programs to fight climate change.

One of the ways that the California Air Resource Board has accomplished cutting back 90% of carbon emissions and reducing smog to the point where there are no longer any smog alerts was by setting emission standards stricter than most of the country. These emissions standards not only apply to big factories and their machines, but also apply to fuel, vehicles, and other products that made up a big portion of emissions in California’s past.

Vehicle Code Section 27156

California’s Vehicle Code Section 27156 states that “no person shall operate or leave standing upon a highway a motor vehicle that is a gross polluter”.  What constitutes a gross polluter is defined by the Health and Safety Code Section 39032.5.

One of the common car customization myths people believe is that for your vehicle to be considered a “gross polluter” you have to directly alter or remove your emission control devices. This is not the case. Any vehicle that has aftermarket or performance parts are deemed illegal unless that have a valid State Air Resources Board Executive Order that they can provide if stopped by police.

Executive Order Number

In order to ensure that no motor vehicle’s pollution control system is altered or modified in such a way that it may cause the vehicle to fail emissions tests, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board said in Advisory number 339 that all aftermarket parts for vehicles or engines have to have a valid Air Resource Board Executive Order Number.

Modifications that alters the original emissions control system in any way is illegal, no matter if your vehicle is for street driving or off-roading. There are some exceptions worth exploring. You do have to be careful to make sure if an exception actually applies to you. A violation of California’s Health and Safety Code through vehicle emission violations can cause you to end up with a $5,000 fine for each and every violation they find. This fine does not only apply to businesses but also any person using aftermarket parts on a new vehicle in the State of California.

Are There Any Legal Options?

Yes! There are! Make sure you find a reputable shop to tune your vehicle who is knowledgeable about the relevant laws and they will be able to point you in the right direction. Since it is also illegal to sell the same parts that are illegal to modify your vehicle with, it’s a good sign if you can even find it locally.

 A great option that is also legal is Ford’s Power Pack 2. This option includes cold air intake and intake adapter and provides 21 horsepower and 24 lb-ft peak gains above stock. Best of all, it is CARB friendly with an executive order number included making it street legal in all 50 states.

This is one area of car ownership where you should take great care. It is not worth spending all of the money to have your vehicle tuned, only to have to pay several thousand in fines and not be able to use it. With a valid EO number, you can be sure that your vehicle will pass all smog checks and emissions standards. 

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