5 things you don't know about your car
Modern cars are amazing technical accomplishments, perhaps more than you realize. Here's our automotive version of "Did You Know?"
Volvo Pedestrian Detection With Full Auto-Brake
Ironically, as cars get more advanced, motorists seem to know less about them. A hundred years ago, you practically needed to be an engineer to drive a car. Fifty years ago, most drivers regularly checked their own oil and could identify a spark plug on sight. Today, it's rare to find a driver who can shift a manual transmission, much less explain even one of the many electronic safety aids that come standard with their 4-wheeled friend.
As cars morph into appliances, the near magic of their technical capabilities escapes notice. That makes it difficult for society to understand just how advanced these machines have become or how difficult it might be to improve them further.
To illustrate the point, here are five common but rarely understood aspects of the modern car.
Did You Know Your Car Is Recording You?
For well over a decade, essentially every new car has been equipped with an event data recorder similar to an airplane's flight recorder, or "black box."
Normally part of the system that knows when to deploy the airbags, the event data recorder continuously tracks a multitude of facts, such as the vehicle's acceleration rate, speed, various engine functions, seat belt use and more. Such systems are not connected to the GPS and so do not know where the vehicle is located. Furthermore, the data are continuously overwritten, so just the few last seconds of data before an accident may be available. The idea is to give accident investigators a big boost in understanding why a vehicle crashed.
More involved are optional concierge services such as General Motors' OnStar and Ford's Sync. These powerful data links do have GPS and do know where the vehicle is, and they accumulate a huge amount of speed, acceleration and engineering data. So far these systems do not communicate with anyone outside the car unless you ask them to — by pushing the OnStar buttons, for example. But when you do, all sorts of remote control is possible, from unlocking doors and reducing engine power to shutting the car off, as well as tracking the vehicle's position in real time.
Did You Know Your Car Can Phone Home?
What if your car isn't running right and you take it to the dealer for service? The standard procedure is to plug the car into a computerized diagnostic machine that interrogates the car's onboard computers to see what they've experienced lately. This is the source of the "fault codes" your technician may have mentioned.
But in cases that are particularly difficult to diagnose, the car's computer may be linked to computers at the car manufacturer's headquarters. Using the dealership's data link, the car can "phone home" for the latest servicing or technical updates. Furthermore, a car's computer software can be updated through these links.
It still takes a skilled technician to analyze much of this electronic chitchat, but the advantages of electronic diagnostics are immense. It's as if a factory engineer made dealership calls.
Did You Know Your Car Will Last Longer Than You Think, but Watch Out?
Owners have long joked that cars are designed to last a couple of days past their warranty period, then fall apart. Well, it isn't much of a joke anymore. Engineers using powerful computer modeling can forecast the life span of parts more accurately than ever. If those parts prove weak, they are reinforced during development; if they are too strong, they are slimmed down to save weight or cost. The result is that modern cars boast superb reliability for their designed lifetimes. They require minimal maintenance and return excellent performance. But when they reach the end of their design life span, many of those parts have simultaneously reached the end of their road.
This doesn't mean that one day you'll walk out to the driveway to find Old Faithful snapped in two. The wheels aren't going to fall off or the brakes stop working. Such fundamentals are designed to last indefinitely, given normal maintenance. But everything else — nonessentials such as switches, upholstery, paint, rubber parts, trim, plastics, door hinges and so on — is not designed to last forever. The nonessentials are designed to last the "lifetime" of the car.
Just how long is a car's lifetime? It varies, but 150,000 miles or 10 years is typical. Clearly, cars can serve longer than this. But more typically, a decade down the road, when you suddenly realize the headlights are yellow, the upholstery is starting to unravel, the window switches have failed and the clear-coat paint is peeling into alligator skin, it is unequivocally time to move on. To do otherwise is shoveling against the financial tide.
Did You Know Your Car Can Brake By Itself?
Originally, if a car's brakes were to come on, the driver had to step on the brake pedal. No driver, no brakes — end of story. But in the 1980s, anti-lock braking systems added control circuits and a pump to build hydraulic pressure, which activates the brakes. Shortly thereafter, stability control systems were developed to minimize dangerous skids; these systems added computer control to the existing ABS circuits, allowing the car to apply one or more of the brakes even when the driver hadn't touched the brake pedal.
More recently, research has shown that many drivers don't apply the brakes hard enough in panic stops, so some cars apply the brakes even harder if the computer thinks it necessary. And now, with the recent advent of radar-guided cruise control, the car's computers will also apply the brakes if the driver doesn't and the computer concludes the car is going to run into something.
It's all part of an ongoing movement toward self-driving cars. The self-applying brake technology is well-developed; self-steering is increasingly available, thanks to those cars that can parallel-park themselves; and speed control is now radar-guided. The last big step is improving the radar capability the computer requires to "see" where the road is.
Did You Know Your Car Is Recyclable?
OK, so at the end of 10 years you can't simply leave your car next to the blue bin for curbside recycling — but the reality is very nearly that case.
Long before recycling was trendy, major automakers had in-house guidelines for the disposition of the cars they made. Engineers had to consider what would happen to the parts they were designing when the cars they were in were discarded. It was the beginning of the end of plastic dashboard pads that won't crack after 20 years in the desert sun — or 10,000 years in a landfill.
Today, many automakers estimate that 85 percent of each car, by weight, is recyclable. Wrecking yards do the most visible work; i.e., picking cars apart for profit. Not as apparent is that manufacturers have discovered the financial and marketing benefits of starting with sustainable, "green" materials. Recycled plastics are now common in components such as splash shields and engine covers. Seat cushions and other interior trim parts are increasingly made from soy and biomass extended foam — think Hamburger Helper for petroleum-based plastics — or even recycled yarn. They join the already highly recycled metal parts to make the automobile one of the most recyclable items on the planet.
Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson's credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.
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Author a little behind the times with suggestion that cars are used up at 150k, just check craiglist or similar and see how many cars for sale with over 200k miles, and many of these cars will be driven for many more years. Obviously at some point almost all cars reach a point that too many things are broken and doesn't make sense to repair, especially here in the northeast where cars rust out long before they wear out.
Chirpy - mileage estimates are from the EPA, not the manufacturer. And they are from testing new models, generally without breaking them in, so many cars end up getting much better mileage than is estimated.
'02 Trailblazer, 180,000 plus... looks good for another 100,000 with a few frontend bushings... Most of the time if you treat them right, that is the way they will treat you...