Thursday, November 22, 2012

Automotive Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day and I have been reflecting upon the things for which I am thankful. Since my mind always runs through ideas related to the automotive world, I have come up with a list of things to be thankful for in the related to cars and trucks. Some of these things are silliness but most of them are genuinely good.

1.       Fuel injection: My thankfulness for fuel injection goes hand in hand with my thankfulness for the fact we don’t have to rely on carburetors anymore. When it’s really cold in the morning fuel injection helps your car run smoothly. Not having issues with silly things like a choke, and fast idle cam adjustment and that kind of nonsense is a good thing. When it’s really hot outside fuel injection helps your car run smoothly. Since fuel injection runs at a much higher fuel pressure, things like vapor lock never occur to leave you stranded out in the hot desert. When it’s wet and rainy outside fuel injection helps your car run smoothly. Air density and humidity are automatically compensated for in ways that carburetors could never handle. All of these things are completely taken for granted by just about everyone who drives. I’m sure old people, anyone who has been driving for the last 30 years or so, remembers the problems associated with carburetors all too well.
Injecting a bit of reliability
2.       Japanese Quality: What I am thankful for here are the Japanese cars that began to sell very well back in the mid 80’s. These cars were small and awkward, but were so reliable they won more and more market share every year. By the time the Japanese manufacturers started to design cars that were not just reliable but were also the size and shape that Americans wanted, they were selling more of these “normal” cars than the domestics. This higher standard that was introduced by the Japanese lead to the domestics slowly raising the quality of their product. When quality goes up across the entire market the consumer ultimately wins.
1985 Honda Civic with reliability that was so far ahead
of so many other things.

3.       European Quality: My thankfulness for European quality relates to ride and handling. Anyone who has driven a BMW or an Audi knows exactly what I am talking about. These cars are well built from the standpoint of being so nice to drive it is just plain fun. I am not sure if I can think of a car that has better handling characteristics and ride quality all wrapped in the same sheet metal than something like a BMW M5. The downside of the Europeans is that they don’t last as long as the Japanese cars, but then if you can afford a Mercedes E class, you can always sell it before it starts to fall apart and then you can go buy a new one.

2013 Ford Fusion
4.       Domestic Quality: Cars are so much better all around than they used to be, that even the domestics are building cars that last a long time. This is what happens in a free market. If you think I am way off base here in my assessment of the domestics, then name some models from the big three that were genuinely reliable and nice to drive from the 80’s or 90’s. They are very few and far between. Ford stands out in my mind as the domestic manufacturer that is really getting things done right. They are doing well building cars that people want to drive and that will last. Chrysler is doing okay too but they haven’t stood on their own two feet since the mid nineties. They are currently owned by Fiat, and before that Mercedes, so they will go as Fiat goes. GM is still owned by the government and the UAW so there is not much positive there, especially considering that GM continues to lose market share, as well as see their stock price fall.

5.       Power Sliding Doors: I have expressed my appreciation for this feature in the past but I cannot express enough how great this future is when you are a family man toting young kids around with you everywhere. This is feature only available on minivans and it is one of the things that make minivans so much better than SUVs for hauling your rug rats around.

6.       Natural Gas Vehicles: Here I go again pumping up the technology that I enjoy so much. My thankfulness for CNG all boils down to the low cost of the fuel. CNG is currently $1.60 per gallon where I live while gasoline is $3.60. I also love that natural gas comes from my backyard. My friends and neighbors literally work in the natural gas fields that surround my hometown. I am thankful that I don’t have to give my money to countries that hate me in order to drive.

7.       Platinum Tipped Spark Plugs: This is really thankfulness for spark plugs that last longer than 10,000 miles. The platinum and iridium tipped spark plugs of today can easily go 100,000 miles before requiring replacement. This means that cars and trucks are much more reliable today and require less maintenance.

The new Ford 6.7 Powerstroke
8.       Diesel Engines: I would be more thankful of course if we had as many diesel engine options here in the U.S. as they have in almost every other country around the world. These engines are so powerful and fuel efficient at the same time that using them more often would really make a tremendous amount of sense. The problem remains that most manufacturers are not quite willing to take a chance on selling these diesel engines in our market. They are getting pretty close however, and I think we will see more of them soon.

9.       Forced Induction Systems: Turbo chargers and superchargers are becoming more popular every year. This is good news for all. Not only are turbos good for making fast cars faster, but they are excellent for making normal cars more powerful with allowing them to consume less fuel. One of the strategies that many car companies are using now is replacing V6 engines with turbocharged I4 engines, and replacing V8 engines with turbocharged V6 engines. In each of these instances the cars on question have the same amount of power when it’s needed but use a lot less fuel when it’s not needed.

10.   Freeways: These are great for traveling across stateliness in order to spend thanksgiving with family. Nothing is better than hitting the highway in a nice running car and cruising to someplace that you want to go. The old adage that it’s not the destination but the journey that’s important rings true for those that love a good road trip.

 Have a good Thanksgiving. If you have a computer to read this from along with internet access, and electricity to run it all then you probably have something to be thankful for as well.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Getting on the CNG Bandwagon

Much has been said lately about compressed natural gas as a means of fueling light-duty cars and trucks. Most people compare the cost of CNG to the cost of gasoline and they want to get onboard the CNG bandwagon. Paying $1.00 to $2.00 per gallon certainly has universal appeal. So what is the best way to get into this world of low cost transportation fuel?

The thing that makes CNG such a great alternative is that it can be adapted to any gasoline engine on the road. The only problem here is that the hardware and software needed to make this happen must be certified by the EPA for each individual application. This means that if you have a 2002 Nissan Maxima you likely won’t be able to convert it to run on natural gas at this time because there is no certified kit for this application.

With a bit of research, i.e. a Google search for CNG conversion kits, you will find all sorts of companies that claim that they can make any car run on natural gas. This is true; they make parts that can be fitted to any vehicle to allow it to run on natural gas. The problem with this is not only are these kits not EPA certified, but they are often such poor quality that they are more trouble than they are worth. The software calibration is too generic and the car never runs quite right. Major power loss will be experienced; increased emissions, and chronically illuminated check engine lights will be common.

Honda Civic NG (GX). Plenty of used civics on the market if you
know where to look.
The other issue here that is perhaps more important than power loss or check engine lights is the fact that CNG fuel systems are designed to handle gaseous hydrocarbons compressed to around 3600 psi. This is a major safety issue. If the components are of high quality and are installed by a certified technician who knows what they are doing then there is no hazard. With this high pressure though, the potential for danger is high if systems are installed by someone who doesn’t know the safety standards that apply to the configuration and installation of high pressure fuel systems.

Many of these problems related to non EPA certified kits and improper installation could be remedied easily if the Feds would streamline the certification process and make it cheaper for CNG system manufacturers to certify their products. Oversight here is important but it should be a little more intelligent. Also, with more educational opportunities for automotive technicians to pick up the necessary skills to work on these systems we could move towards more CNG systems in the many cars and trucks on our streets and highways.

Honestly the most important thing to worry about when it comes to making sure that any vehicle running on CNG is running properly is what is coming out of the tailpipe. Is it possible to make non certified kits work properly? Yes it is. Can this kind of work be done by any shadetree mechanic or a mechanically inclined car owner? No it can’t. With this I would say that what we really need are laws that allow certification of individual vehicles and installations, rather than a blanket certification for exact makes, models, and model years. This could be very easily accomplished, especially in areas that already have emissions testing in place.

The state of Utah is a great example of a state that has taken action on this. They have laws in place that say that as long as the vehicle passes the emissions testing in the most populous counties then they are officially not going to worry about whether or not the kit is EPA certified. The installation must also conform to National Fire Protection Association standard 52, covering gaseous fuel system installation. Even if the kit is EPA certified, the installation must meet this standard in order to pass the Utah state safety inspection. Now how long will it be before the EPA confronts the State of Utah regarding this law is unknown, but it does show that some governments are trying to do what they can.

An older Chevrolet Cavalier CNG
So if you want a vehicle that runs on CNG what can you do? If you drive a late model, full-size truck chances are you can get a certified kit and installation pretty easily. You can even buy a CNG powered pickup truck through your local dealership in some instances. The vehicles that you can buy brand new with the CNG systems installed are usually referred to as having a factory conversion. The auto manufacturers themselves work with third party companies to equip their vehicles with some very nice systems that integrate flawlessly and can be serviced by dealership technicians.

The other option that is much less expensive is to find a nice used vehicle from about 10 years ago when there were many options on the market. The domestic manufacturers got out of the game of doing factory CNG conversions because they got a little preoccupied with keeping their factory doors open and not going out of business. Because the auto industry has stabilized a bit in the last year or two they are getting back into the CNG game. From 10 years ago you can find all sorts of trucks and vans and large SUV’s that are still on the road and with very low mileage. The low mileage results from the fact that many of them were part of some government fleet and did not get driven much.
2013 Ram 2500 CNG. This is very nice factory equipped CNG truck.
If you don’t want a truck you can find a nice used Chevy Cavalier, Ford Contour, or Honda Civic that runs on natural gas. The Honda Civic is the only CNG powered vehicle that has been in continuous production since 1996. This is a great car but it is a dedicated system so you can only run it on CNG and it cannot be switched over to gasoline on the fly like the bifuel vehicles can.

Good options do exist; check the classifieds in large markets like Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, or Los Angeles. I mention these cities because they are kind of the epicenters for CNG powered vehicles. Oklahoma and Utah have a tremendous amount of natural gas, and the pipelines that run out of Utah head straight to Los Angeles. The public gas utilities in these places have also done a lot to build infrastructure such as fueling stations. Most of the residents of Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front of Northern Utah live within a few minutes of more than one CNG station so they there are a lot of CNG cars and trucks around. The Utah laws regarding CNG conversions mentioned earlier also make this area friendly to CNG vehicles. This is a good example of how government restrictions and the loosening thereof can help the private sector to build flourishing market better than anything else.

Filling up at home would be cheap and convenient.
You can purchase home fueling units that install easily as long as you have a gas line to your garage. These compressors can fill your tank slowly over a few hours. You can hook your vehicle up at night and by the time you head out for your commute in the morning it will be full. These machines are rather expensive but the cost of the fuel when filling up at home is outrageously cheap, often less than .50 per gallon.

When buying a used CNG vehicle, make sure that the CNG system is legal and that it works properly. Run away from anything that has a chronic check engine light, or anything that cannot be verified as EPA certified, or a factory installation. Also be aware that most CNG tanks expire after 15 years and must be removed from service. Some classified ads will say that the tanks can be recertified. This is not true if the expiration date for the tank as listed on the manufacturers label has passed. Each tank must also be inspected every 3 years for safety reasons. These inspections will be listed on a label on the tank not from the manufacturer  These inspections are cheap and easy to get from a certified CNG fuel system inspector. 

So consider your options. If you want to experiment with driving a CNG vehicle then find something old and cheap and see how you like it. If current trends towards more CNG options is truly on the horizon then in a few years you will have even more options. With this, you too can use cheap fuel that comes from our own back yard rather than from some exotic foreign location. Cheap clean fuel is real, and you can use it too.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Evolution of Style

Is this just a station wagon?
In the world of personal style and fashion it seems that many times there are no new ideas. While the classics never change much and never go out of style, anything that seems new and cutting edge likely isn’t, it’s just been tweaked and relabeled. Considering how much the automobile appeals to our sense of personal style one could make the argument that there are no new ideas in this area either.

Cars such as the pickup truck and sedan are always top sellers and always fill a need for practicality and style so they have not changed much over the years. People have always wanted the things that a pickup truck offers, and the sedan we are all used to is likely to never change. Think of any sports car that is on the market, that is one platform with universal appeal that nobody dare tamper with. The best example of style evolution in the automotive world is the station wagon.

Many would say that with the exception of a few European models, the station wagon disappeared long ago when GM quit building the three seat behemoths that used to sell in abundance back in the 80’s. Nearly every manufacturer sold a wagon version of every sedan that was in their lineup. The station wagon met the needs of those that needed a bit of extra capacity for hauling more people and more of their stuff. In Europe they are still very fond of the station wagon, or the “estate” as it is called in the U.K. To the Europeans the wagon represents the only way to maximize overall utility without reducing fuel economy.
1984 Dodge Caravan.

In the mid eighties the Chrysler Corporation invented the minivan and the style evolution really began. The Dodge Caravan and the Plymouth Voyager became so ubiquitous amongst the child rearing, baby boomers that any family that was any family had one. Ford quickly followed with the Aerostar and Chevrolet came out with the Astro. The Japanese and Europeans also followed suit.

The station wagon became a second class citizen as these new minivans began to proliferate. The minivan became trendy and with good reason: they had a new style that was much more appealing than the full-size vans and they held more people and things than the average minivan. Some of the early minivan offerings were truck based so they could haul heavier loads than a station wagon and could even be used for towing. The minivan was all the rage by 1990.

The Chevy Astro was the first attempt at a minivan from
Chevrolet. It was a true minivan because it was very truck-like.
As the years rolled on and everyone with any kids had a minivan of some sort, the trendiness began to wear off as people started looking for the next great styling statement. At this point the sport utility vehicle was becoming much more driver friendly than it had typically been, and all of the auto manufacturers began to offer models with four doors and extra seating.

The Ford Explorer hit the market and started selling like mad. The public figured that if it was tough enough to be used to chase dinosaurs in Jurassic Park then they needed one for themselves. Considering that the SUV was rugged looking, great in the snow, and offered towing capacities that the minivans couldn’t, people began to take notice and the SUV craze became intense by the late 90’s. This meant that the minivan was the new nerd mobile just as the station wagon had become years earlier.

The problem was, and still is, that to most people the SUV just isn’t very nice to drive on a daily basis. Truck frames, heavy-duty drivetrains, and four-wheel-drive systems just don’t lend themselves to comfortable driving and crisp handling. Auto manufacturers, ever adapting form and function to the changing demands of the auto buying public, figured out a way to make the SUV handle more like a minivan, but without giving it the dowdy looks of the minivan. They came up with what we call the cross-over utility vehicle or the CUV.

The cross over is a major compromise, and as such it loses the qualities of the minivan and the qualities of the SUV. Since it is not good for off-road use and not very good for towing, SUV purists have no use for them. The CUV cannot haul as many people or their stuff as comfortably as the minivan so for the purely practical family, the CUV is useless. In spite of these shortcomings the CUV is a big seller and appeals to a very wide range of people. Most people don’t have any interest in off-road adventures and most people are not as practical as someone who insists on a minivan.

The Ford Flex is just a station wagon and if anyone says
different then they probably own one.
Today the next step in this automotive evolution is upon us and after close examination it is obvious that we have gone full circle. Because CUVs still are not that car like in their comfort and handling, they have changed yet again. Some of them are now lower to the ground than they have ever been, and they are being sold more and more without the option of all-wheel-drive. They still have a high amount of interior space and they still have things like three rows of seating. Some good examples of this next stage of style evolution are vehicles like the Toyota Venza, Ford Flex, or the BMW X3.

Quite often these vehicles are still referred to as CUVs but let’s face it, they’re station wagons. They are based on sedans, they lack off road capability, they have a rear hatch over the cargo area instead of a trunk, and they are not particularly good for towing.

If you tell someone who owns one of these new generation CUVs that it is a station wagon, they will quickly correct you and tell you that the vehicle they have is much nicer or sportier than a station wagon. The answer to this is, of course they are. We haven’t seen any “station wagons” in 20 years. If you were to take a Chevrolet Caprice wagon from the early nineties and give it a more evolved style with modern features, you would have the CUVs of today.
Honda Accord Cross-Tour. Not an SUV, not a cross-over,
not a minivan. It's a station wagon.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Let the Manual Be Your Guide

Believe it or not, the owner’s manual that comes with your vehicle actually contains a great deal of useful information. Many times people skip the instruction book that comes with whatever cool new thing they have bought, but in the case of the owner’s manual for your car, it is well worth your time spending a few moments studying the information found in its pages.

You might not need to read the instructions on how to start your car, or how to buckle your seat belt (those things are actually outlined in great detail), but you should definitely study the chapters pertaining to vehicle maintenance. This is the best way to determine what services are required and when. Every owner’s manual will have a maintenance schedule that will tell when you need to have certain preventative maintenance services performed.

These are things like oil changes and tire rotations. Any service that is recommended based on mileage or time is necessary just to help prevent any future problems or to stave off undue wear and tear. Common services that are always found in the owner’s manual are things like oil changes, and tire rotations, as mentioned above; but also things like air filter replacement, spark plug replacement, coolant service, transmission service, brake inspection, and all sorts of other things.

Many manufacturers will show two different maintenance schedules in the owner’s manual, “normal”, and “severe.” The difference between the two is that severe calls for more service at more frequent intervals. The one that you should follow depends on how and where you drive your vehicle. The following is a description of severe driving conditions according to the owner’s manual in a 2005 Honda Civic.

  • Driving less than 5 miles (8 km) per trip or, in freezing temperatures, driving less than 10 miles (16 km) per trip.
  • Driving in extremely hot [over 90°F (32°C)] conditions.
  • Extensive idling or long periods of stop-and-go driving, such as a taxi or a commercial delivery vehicle.
  • Driving with a roof rack, or driving in mountainous conditions.
  • Driving on muddy, dusty, or deiced roads.

If you drive in any of these conditions then you drive your vehicle under severe conditions. This of course is silly because anybody who drives any car anywhere is likely to be severe. Maybe a little old lady, who lives in San Diego and only drives her car twice a week for 10 to 15 miles at a time, can be considered normal.

An example of a service schedule from an owner's manual.

The reason for this nonsense is to make the cost of maintenance seem cheaper for the car shopper that is doing their homework. Most people think that they are normal and if they are calculating the total cost of ownership, they will figure maintenance costs according to the normal schedule.

Knowing the maintenance schedule for your vehicle is helpful because if you take your car in for an oil change and they try to tell you that you should have something else serviced, you will have an idea if what they are telling you is true or not. Knowledge is power.
If you are not sure when to replace a filter or if your car even
has a particular filter check the owner's manual first.
Not everything that your car will ever need is outlined in the maintenance schedule. Sometimes your mechanic will recommend something that is not listed, and they may tell you that it is part of routine maintenance. A good example of this is fuel filter replacement. Cars that have one of these almost never have a recommendation for replacement, but it is almost always a good idea to service it regularly.

Arm yourself with information from the owner’s manual and your car will last longer, and you will be more educated when you take it to the shop. This is the best guide that you have and the information will help you take care of this machine that you rely on so much.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Best Car Commercials Ever

Why is it that anything that can make us laugh, is something that is worthwhile. No matter whether it has any truly redeeming value, if we get a good chuckle then it scores points. For some reason it seems that commercials on TV are not as funny as they used to be. Below I have selected a number a car commercials that are memorable because they are somehow funny or maybe just really cool. Some of these ads are fairly new and some of them are old but they are all something that will make the viewer remember them, and maybe even remember the car that is featured. Will it make you want to go and buy one of these cars? Probably not but that isn’t always the main focus when a company creates an advertisement. Quite often they just want to get their product noticed. I think that these ads do that.

Dodge Challenger and George Washington

How on earth can a commercial get more patriotic than this? A V8 powered muscle car and General George Washington. The fact that you can’t tell what the commercial is for, really draws you in and then all of the sudden it becomes abundantly clear. Chrysler has had nothing but terrible ads for that last few years but this is one to remember.

Swagger Wagon

This ad is great because it jokingly tries to makes something that is universally considered uncool, look cool. The only people who actually think that a minivan is cool are the moms and dads that actually own one. They usually don’t think it’s cool in the way that this ad tries to make it look cool, but I suppose that is why this commercial is funny. I might also think that this commercial is funny because I own a minivan and pack it with kids and stuff on a regular basis.

This commercial is one of a new kind that wasn’t actually made for TV; it was made for YouTube and the internet in general. Nothing will get your car noticed more quickly than making a funny or interesting ad that can go viral on the internet.


This is a commercial for Statoil gas stations which are found in Europe. A great commercial that doesn’t need any dialogue or music to make it funny.

Old Lady, Volkswagen Golf

When buying a used car veryone knows that the best deals are the clean, one owners. The car that was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to the grocery store on Monday,  the post office on Wednesday, and church on Sunday. This commercial shows you that you never really know what a car might have been through while the little old lady was behind the wheel.

Ford Mustang Chase

If you were a cop you would certainly have a good time driving fast chasing the bad guys, but it would be too bad that you would be stuck behind the wheel of a police cruiser and never get a chance to get behind the wheel of some cool sports car. Perhaps if the opportunity presented itself you might fins a way to race around in something fast and fun.

Ford Ka

This one comes with a strict warning! If you like cats don’t watch this. If you hate cats then you will laugh your head off (if you watch this add you will understand the pun). Either way you have to admit that this is a gutsy ad, but from what I have heard the ad didn’t get much air time and I suppose it’s pretty obvious why it didn’t. The Ford Ka is not sold in the U.S. so this ad was made for the European market only.

Chevy Sonic

The best car ad/music video ever made. This is another web ad but it was advertised during the last superbowl. They ran ads for the music video and the car at the same time telling viewers to check out the whole thing online.

The song in the music video is for the song Needin, Gettin by the group Okay Go. This band has a history of very creative and off the wall music videos and this one is no exception. Everything that you see in this video is real, and many days were spent just setting up and filming. Someehere on youtube there is a making of video where the guys in the band talk about what it took to make this video. The song has nothing to do with this particular car but the little four door hatch looks good doing what it’s doing in the video.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Shed Some Light

Looking on the Bright Side

You are driving your car down a lonely country road at 11:00 pm. The road is winding back and forth but you cruise along at a comfortable and steady 45 mph. You probably have the stereo on playing some personal selection from your iPod, or perhaps you are listening to some off the wall talk radio show about aliens from outer space. Either way your drive is no problem. Even when a deer jumps out in front of you, the animal is easy to spot, so you just slow down a little and the thing gets out of the way.

The thing that makes this leisurely drive possible is the headlights of your car. These lights are usually taken for granted despite the fact that without them your car becomes completely useless literally half of the time. Imagine making the same drive with no headlights. How long would you be able to drive before your car is in the ditch? With these two simple electrical devices on the front of your car you can see just about everything that you need to in order to keep the situation under control.
Headlights are almost as old as the automobile itself. They were applied to some of the very first cars in the form of kerosene burning lamps. Over the years headlights have changed substantially but on the other hand they have stayed the same. They always come in pairs and they are always in about the same place on the front of the car. They have high beam and low beam modes in which they operate, and they actually add something to the overall looks of the exterior of the vehicle in a way that not many other features do.

Let’s have a look at some of the different headlight designs, and some other features that are becoming more and more common each year.

Sealed Beam

These are the old style headlights that were essentially the same from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. The filament is tungsten like most other bulbs, and in later sealed beam head lights the filament was surrounded by halogen gas to make the light brighter, and help the filament last longer.
Seal beam headlamps

These headlights incorporate the filament, reflector, lens, and housing all into one unit. Some of them have the high beam and low beam filaments together in the same housing as well. This means that the entire assembly must be changed if the filament burns out. The angle of the beam is adjusted by moving the position of the entire assembly.

These lights are cheap to replace even if everything is combined into one unit because for years and years the design of the seal beam headlight didn’t change. They were all round pretty much from the time they were invented until engineers at GM came up with the revolutionary idea of making them square. Once the square ones caught on then all of them were square. Considering all of the many different designs that were found on various makes and models between the 1930’s and the 1980’s, it’s funny to think that the headlight shape hardly changed at all.

Composite Halogen

The composite headlamps that are found on 90% of cars today use a halogen bulb similar to the sealed beam headlights, except the lens, reflector, and housing are a separate assembly from the bulb. This means that the bulb alone gets replaced when it burns out. This is also the reason that so many different headlight designs exist today. These separate bulbs are easy to replace, and only a few different bulb designs can suit the needs of the many different shapes and styles headlight assemblies.
Composite headlight assembly.

The bulbs are just halogen bulbs but the reflectors vary substantially. Some halogen bulbs use a projector beam reflector and lens to concentrate the light from the bulb. These are the headlights that actually appear to have a small, dark, round lens behind the main outer lens when the headlights are not on. Sometimes these are confused with HID headlights but they are not the same. HID or Xenon headlights are explained below.

The bulbs in the composite headlight assemblies are easy to replace but caution should be taken when servicing these bulbs. If you touch the glass part of a halogen bulb, the bulb will burn out very easily. Oils from your skin, no matter how clean your hands are, will cause the glass the get even hotter than it already does under normal circumstances. This will actually melt the glass and cause the bulb to pop.

Sometimes the regular halogen bulbs that are car uses are not bright enough. The aftermarket has a few products that can actually make the headlights brighter. One of them is the Sylvania Silver Star bulbs. These bulbs are not cheap considering that a pair of them will set you back about $50. They are very bright and will help you to see better at night.
Two headlights are shining on this door form the same vehicle. The one
on the right is a conventional halogen bulb and the one on the left is a Sylvania
Silver Star halogen bulb. This is not a paid endorsement but a photo actually
taken by the author of this article.


These are those headlights that appear different than other headlights when you see them from a distance. They will usually have a blue tint to them that is bluer, the farther away the vehicle is. As the car gets closer the light becomes whiter. These lights will always use a projector beam reflector and lens to direct the light from the bulb.

An HID headlight. The one on the left is the HID used for low beam. The one on the right is halogen used for
high beam. This configuration is sometimes referred to a bi-xenon.

The bulb does not contain a filament like the sealed beam or the halogen bulbs. The HID bulbs actually produce light by arcing electricity from one electrode to another within the bulb. The light is literally emanating from the electric arc rather than from a glowing piece of wire. In order to make this work a ballast is used to step up the 12 volts from the vehicle’s electrical system to a level high enough to make the jump. These types of bulbs take a second to actually come on because it takes a moment to build the necessary voltage within the ballast. An igniter is used to make the initial ionization of the air molecules between the electrodes in the bulb. Once the arc has jumped the ballast provides the increased voltage to maintain the arc. The bulb is filled with xenon gas that helps the arc to be even brighter. These bulbs are about $200 to $300 a piece, but they last much longer than a regular halogen bulb.

HID headlights are somewhat controversial because they are brighter than halogen bulbs. Some people complain that when they approach another car with HID headlights, they are blinded by the extra brightness coming from these lights. Because of this many vehicle with HID’s will have a self-leveling mechanism that corrects the angle of the reflector when needed. If something heavy is placed in the trunk, or if you are hauling around your 300 pound sister, the back end of the car will sag. This makes the headlights tilt up which makes the headlights more blinding to oncoming traffic no matter what kind of headlights you have. Most HID headlights will have a sensor that can determines when the headlights are not level or pointing in an upward direction and a small motor will activate to tilt them back down.
Fake xenon lights are lame.

A very popular thing right now is fake xenon lights. These are halogen bulbs that are tinted blue and give off blue light to simulate HID’s. Many times the package will call them HID or xenon, but they are not. These bulbs can be spotted easily because they appear blue but are not really all that bright. They also appear blue from a distance but don’t turn white as you get close to them. These bulbs are for the silly kids that like to think they’re cool.

Light Emitting Diodes

Of all lights sources that exist in this world, the one that is quickly becoming more common in every area of lighting is the light emitting diode (LED). Everything from flash lights, to TV screens, are now using LED’s instead of incandescent or other types of bulbs. The biggest reason for this is that LED’s use a tiny amount of energy compared to standard bulbs, and they last much longer. LED bulbs also don’t suffer from a decrease in output and intensity over time, in the way that incandescent bulbs do.
LED headlights on a Lexus LS600h.

LED bulbs are very efficient because more of the energy that they use gets converted to light rather than getting converted to heat. Standard incandescent bulbs and halogen bulbs can produce a lot of light but they actually produce more heat than anything else.

Because LED bulbs are the latest, they are also the most expensive. Like everything else the cost will come down with a little time. Right now only the most high-end luxury or sports cars have them. People who buy these cars are usually willing to pay anything for a gadget that nobody else has.

Other Headlight Features

Some other headlight features are becoming more common. Most of these things are made possible by the fact that headlights are now computer controlled on most vehicles, in some way or another. Putting computers in charge facilitates many features that people come to rely on, and eventually cannot do without.

Headlight Washer Systems

In Europe, automotive lighting standards dictate that any vehicle with headlights that discharge a high level of lumens must have a system for washing the headlights. This system will consist of wiper arms that look like tiny windshield wipers, and/or a system that sprays the headlights with washer fluid. These sprayers might be hidden and only pop up to spray the lights. These light washer systems are meant to clean the headlights which in turn reduces glare from the headlights when viewed by drivers in other cars approaching at night.
Headlight wiper on a euro spec Mercedes.
In the U.S. such headlight washing systems are not required but are permitted. Because of this many European cars and few Asian cars sold in the U.S. may have these systems. Since manufacturers put these systems on models sold in Europe, they don’t bother to remove them from the U.S. versions.

To activate the headlight washer, the driver can usually just clean the windshield with the headlights turned on, and the headlights will be washed as well.

Automatic Dimming

Automatic headlights, the kind that can turn themselves on and off, are very common on cars and trucks today. These have been around for some time, but new ways to automate headlights are now starting to appear. Things such as automatic headlight dimming are now common on most high-end cars. This feature is not just there to switch between high beam and low beam, it actually requires some processing to determine how the lights should be controlled and when.

A digital camera is found somewhere in the front of the car to face forward and look at any light in the distance as the car is moving down the road. The computer uses these images to determine if the light ahead of the car is light from another vehicle, such as headlights or tail lights, or if it is something like a street light. If the light is determined to be coming from another vehicle then computer will determine how far away the light is.
camera on the rear view mirror for automatic dimming.
The computer uses high-side drivers to feed power to the headlights at a varying duty cycle to control the brightness of the lights. This means that the computer turns the headlights off and on so fast that you can’t see them flicker, however, the longer they are on the brighter they appear, and the shorter the time they are on the dimmer they appear. So rather than just having high beams and low beams, the brightness of the headlights is infinitely variable within a given range. Maximum brightness when no other cars are around, rather dim when other cars are close, and somewhere in the middle when cars are ahead but maybe a little ways off.

Cornering Lights

Cornering lights have traditionally been the lights that are located on the sides of the front corners of the car, and come on when turn signals are turned on while the headlights are on. The light shines to the side of the car helping to illuminate the turn. Some of these systems still exist but cornering lights are generally much different today. They still help drivers to see better in a turn but now the cornering lights use a system that actually rotates the bulb and the reflector in the headlight assembly as the car goes through a turn.

The computer that controls this system is watching a steering angle sensor that’s attached to the steering column. As the wheel is turned while the headlights are on, the computer activates small actuators in the reflector assembly to steer the lights in the direction that the wheel are turning. This system shares some components with the automatic leveling system that was discussed previously.

Driving/Fog Lights

Real fog lights are yellow.
Fog lights are yellow, driving lights are not. Most cars that have extra lights lighting a path for the vehicle, other than the regular headlights, have driving lights. Driving lights are white, the same color as the headlights. These are just meant to provide extra light on the front of the vehicle and are not intended to be used alone, or in conjunction with the marker lights only.

Fog lights are yellow and always mounted very low on the front of the vehicle. Yellow light will not reflect off of fog, or falling snow and it makes driving in such conditions much easier. Driving in a blizzard or heavy fog at night can be especially nerve racking but real fog lights make a difference that is amazing. Most real fog lights are after market since auto manufacturers don’t install yellow lights on their cars from the factory.

Shed Some Light

Take care of your headlights. Nothing is worse than driving a car at night that has headlight problems. Keep them clean and properly aimed. Also, remember that your headlights really can be a problem for other drivers. Don’t drive with your brights on in city limits, if you have a lifted 4X4, make sure to adjust your headlights accordingly. Good headlights help you and help other drivers, especially on the winding canyon road in the middle of the night.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gas Savers and Hot Air

Want to save some gas? There’s a sucker born every minute!

When gas prices climb, the crazy people and swindlers come out of the word work. Since we are well on our way towards gas prices going above four dollars a gallon all across the country and not just on the coasts, consumers are grasping at straws. They are doing anything they can to try and save fuel including spending money on contraptions that come with big promises. Many cheats, thieves, and charlatans are pushing all sorts of products to try and tell you that you can save fuel by installing their revolutionary device.

Most of these devices are either doing something to change airflow into the engine, or they are doing something to try and affect the combustion process, or they try to enhance the ignition source. The devices that change the airflow into the engine probably end up blocking the flow of air into the engine more than anything else. This will actually lead to a loss in power and possibly a decrease in fuel economy. The gadgets that claim to affect combustion probably don’t do anything at all to the combustion process, and in some cases might even be harmful to some of the things that make the vehicle run right, such as O2 sensors. If the device adds any kind of fluid to the air fuel mixture it is possible to hurt the O2 sensors which are installed in the exhaust pipes.

They all claim an increase in fuel economy somewhere around 20 to 30 percent. The problem with this is that modern engine control systems are so accurate and so efficient that only a tiny fraction of the fuel that is injected doesn’t get consumed. When fuel is not fully burned in the combustion chamber it comes out the exhaust as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. Looking at the emissions from a modern vehicle, before the catalytic converter, the amount of CO and HC’s is very low. CO is likely to be less than .009% and HC levels will be less than 1 part per million. How on earth can it be possible to increase your car’s fuel economy by 20% by burning this unburned fuel, when we are only talking about the possibility of burning such a tiny amount?

Most of these devices take a theory that applies to something else in the engine function or controls, and misapplies that theory in the name of saving fuel. The following is a bit of information about a few of these devices from different manufacturers. These are not necessarily the most popular ones but they are representative of the different types of devices that the consumer can waste their money on in a bout of wishful thinking.

Tornado Fuel Saver

This is a little device made from small metal fins arranged together in a circle that are supposed to create a swirling motion in the intake air. One of these contraptions will usually cost you about $50. This swirling motion is supposed to increase volumetric efficiency or something like that. The fact of the matter is that most engine designs and intake manifold setups are already designed to create turbulence or a swirling motion in the air stream that enters each cylinder. This helps to atomize the fuel as it leaves the injectors and flows into the combustion chamber, and it is supposed to help the fuel mixture fill the combustion chamber evenly so that it gets burned more thoroughly.

The Tornado installed
Swirling the air as it enters the intake manifold is useless since the air splits into the various intake ports as it goes into the engine and how is it supposed to keep this swirl? Automotive engineers have been studying air flow and volumetric efficiency for over a hundred years now and they know what works and doesn’t work when it comes to making the air behave properly in the intake manifolds and the combustion chamber. If efficiency could be increased so easily every engine designer and manufacturer would immediately be integrating their own version of this design or process into their product, and if they didn’t it’s very likely that the EPA would mandate that they do so. This notion really applies to all of the gas saver devices.

Platinum Gas Saver

This item will set you back about $150 plus installation. Many companies build something along these lines; they are all about the same thing. Manufacturers claim that it might take 1,500 miles before it starts to become effective. This is another common claim from the people that make just about every fuel saver. They also claim that you might need to replace your oxygen sensors. This is silly because no good reason exists for doing so just because you are now running tiny amounts of platinum through your engine. The real reason that they recommend this is because most O2 sensors on cars that have been on the road for a while, sat for 100k miles or so, probably have O2 sensors that have lost some efficiency anyway.
Magic platinum fluid. If the solution in the bottle really is platinum, it can't be cheap.

Any gas saver that uses platinum has some kind of reservoir where a solution is held that contains some form platinum. A vacuum line from the engine’s intake manifold connects to the reservoir where the solution is sucked into the intake manifold. Once inside the manifold it goes into the combustion chambers of the engine, or at least into the combustion chamber that is closest to the vacuum line.

The theory is that when combustion takes place in the presence of platinum, the combustion will be more complete. Platinum is one of the elements found in catalytic converters to act as a catalyst to trigger the complete oxidation of any of the carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons that didn’t get used up in the combustion process. The definition of a catalyst is something that triggers a chemical reaction but does not get consumed in the process. Dribbling platinum into the intake manifold and then letting it run down into the combustion chamber is not the same as coating a ceramic element inside of a catalytic converter. This does nothing to save fuel.

Fuel Doctor

This device retails for $50 and is super easy to install because you just have to plug it in to your cigarette lighter or accessory socket. The device has a couple of LEDs that light up as you drive down the road. The manufacturer claims that this electronic device cleans and conditions the electrical power running through the vehicle’s electrical and electronic systems as you drive. With this “conditioned” electricity the electronic control systems become more efficient which helps the engine become more efficient and thus use less fuel.

This is pure quackery and very insulting that these people think we should believe this drivel! Conditioning the electrical power? What nonsense! How is the condition of the electricity affecting engine output, and how would something plugged into the power outlet change the electricity flowing throughout all of the vehicles systems?

On their website they show a video of a power supply attached to an oscilloscope and on the scope you can see some electrical noise. They say that this noise represents the noise from the battery of the car. The problem is that a DC battery doesn’t put out any noise, not even on a car that is 2 years old or older. This is just not true, and combined with the fact that when your engine is running the system voltage comes from the alternator, their demonstration is useless. Some noise can occur from the alternator but it doesn’t have the effect on the computers and control systems that these people claim.

With the alternator turning typical electrical system voltage is going to be in the neighborhood of 13.5 to 14.5 volts. The voltage must be higher than the 12.6 volts of the battery so that electrons will flow into the battery recharging it. The alternator actually produces 3 phase A/C electricity but everything in the car runs off of D/C, and of course the battery can only store D/C. Because of this the electricity produced by the alternator must be rectified from A/C to D/C.

This occurs in a device called the rectifier bridge which is made up of six diodes, 2 for every phase of alternator output. What actually occurs during the rectification process is the alternating current that switches from positive to negative gets cut off from going negative. These negative waves get rerouted and become positive. This happens to all three output phases so that the end result is a fairly direct flow of current into the vehicle’s electrical system.

Looking at this output up close using an A/C coupled oscilloscope you can see a bit of what is termed A/C ripple. If there is too much A/C ripple then things like the engine control module can be damaged. The maximum amount of ripple that the system can have before problems start is about 500 mV peak to peak, high to low.
Normal A/C ripple. This is harmless and normal on every car. This is the top of
the A/C sign waves that come from the alternator.

On the video that the Fuel Doctor shows on their website they show some noise that could be compared to A/C ripple, then they plug in their device and the noise goes away. Big deal. The noise to begin with appears to be around 100 mV. So even if this was true A/C ripple from an alternator, or some other such electrical noise, which it is not, the oscillation that they say is a problem isn’t even high enough to affect anything.

These computers are digital devices. They are either on or off, they either work or they don’t. The A/C ripple will cause them to shut down, or it won’t. Middle ground or gray area is not something that occurs with the function of a digital control mechanism.

Like so many of the other fuel saving devices, the Fuel Doctor people say that you have to drive your vehicle for a while before it will work, but they don’t really say why. Probably to blow out all of the carbon or some such thing. The real reason that they say this is because the device won’t work ever, but if you keep trying then I suppose you hang on to the hope that you really didn’t waste your money, or maybe with some time you will become bad at math and will not be able to properly calculate fuel economy.

Ignition Enhancers

These devices usually claim that they can save you gas by increasing the power of the spark that is responsible for igniting the air/fuel mixture. The claims vary and the setup of these devices follow a few different arrangements. Some of them are meant to be attached to the spark plug wires, and some consist of special voltage enhancer that installs in series with the coil wire. This thing is just another air gap for the spark to jump.

Those that claim to increase the voltage say that more voltage in the secondary ignition means that the fuel will burn faster, or more efficiently. This does not happen because the controlled burn of the air/fuel mixture occurs once it is lit, and the voltage of the spark does not affect the rate of combustion. The only thing that’s important is that the duration of the spark be long enough to get a good burn. Spark duration will usually go down if the firing voltage in the secondary goes up.
Clip these ionizers (little rubber blocks) to your spark plug wires and you too
can save save save!

In many high performance applications increasing this voltage is necessary because these engines have higher compression ratios which makes ionization of the air molecules in the spark plug gap more difficult with lower voltage. In these cases a more powerful ignition coil is used, and/or higher voltage is used in the primary side of the ignition coil in order to produce higher voltage in the secondary.

Increasing the secondary voltage only helps in special applications, and really does nothing to help any situation on the average vehicle of today, and most especially does not save you any fuel. Increasing the secondary voltage can have a slightly negative effect in that it can cause spark plugs to wear faster than normal. This extra voltage causes more metal transfer between the electrodes of the plug which is how spark plugs wear out. The other thing that can happen is that as resistance increases in secondary ignition components, the increased voltage will make it more likely that the spark will leave its normal path. This will cause a cylinder to misfire.

Fuel Line Magnets

These have been around for a very long time and come with all sorts of different names printed on the package. Sometimes these devices are referred to by their manufacturer as a fuel ionizer. This is usually the case when they want the buyer to think that they are getting something special, something that is not just a couple of magnets. An ionizer sounds like something high-tech. An ion is simply an atom that is missing an electron or has and extra electron. What does this have to do with combustion? Nothing.
Fuel line magnets in action.

They all work (don’t work) the same way. You attach them around your fuel line that is going to the fuel rail where the injectors are located. This allows the magnetic flux that emanates from the magnets to affect the fuel as it flows to the injectors. Much of the time these fuel lines are metal so attaching magnets to it wouldn’t even allow the field to reach the fuel since the metal line would actually deflect the magnetic lines of flux.

The claims all vary from one magnet maker to the next. Some claim that the hydrocarbon molecules that make up the fuel are grouped in big clusters that when injected don’t get consumed all of the way. This leads to inefficiency, more fuel used, less power output, and higher emissions from the tailpipe. Some others claim that the molecules are strewn about haphazardly as they enter the injectors which causes inefficiency in the burn. Passing through the magnets forces the molecules to line up in nice even rows, facing the same direction. Aligning molecules has nothing to do with combustion efficiency. Furthermore, if aligning molecules somehow did contribute to combustion efficiency, how would you keep the molecules aligned after they passed through the magnetic flux? Everyone knows that molecules are always moving around bumping into each other even when they are just sitting there.
You can tell that they work well based on this picture.

So the magnets are supposed to rearrange the molecules, which then causes the fuel to burn faster, or more completely. No matter what the claim is about the hydrocarbon molecules and how they are behaving or not behaving, the fact of the matter is that magnets or fluxes don’t have any effect on gasoline. Magnets only affect things that are electrical, or at least somewhat ferrous, like iron or steel. Everyone knows what magnets stick to and what they don’t stick to, but never the less people buy into the supposed power of magnets and claim that they work miracles for all sorts of different things.

Hydrogen Generators

If anything has a chance to work it this, but sadly it still falls short. These devices tout the use of hydrogen (H2), or Oxyhydrogen (HHO), as being something that can be mixed with your intake air to increase your fuel economy. This may be true in theory and this is why many people who don’t believe in any of the previously mentioned fuel savers will continue to come back to these devices as being legitimate. The problem here is a matter of scale.
A typical HHO generator.

Engineers have developed a number of different alternative fuel prototypes that run on hydrogen. Most of them use hydrogen fuel cells which use the single proton and the single electron of the hydrogen atom to produce electricity that runs an electric motor. This is totally unlike using hydrogen to produce combustion. Some auto companies however, have built vehicles with normal internal combustion engines that will run on straight hydrogen instead of gasoline. These engines work very well and produce very little pollution, much less than an internal combustion engine because there is no carbon in any form getting wrapped up in the combustion process.

In these engines a large volume of hydrogen is stored in a very large and rather specialized tank onboard the vehicle. While these vehicles work very well the problem they have is the process of sourcing the fuel. While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe it does not occur naturally anywhere on planet earth, so it is usually rendered from splitting water molecules or breaking down hydrocarbon fuels. This process takes a tremendous amount of electricity.
Hydrogen fuel saver mounted under the hood.

The hydrogen generator type fuel savers use a very small fuel cell in which electrolysis is used to split the water molecules that are stored in a small onboard tank. The hydrogen that results is drawn into the intake manifold, and it does get burned with the gasoline. The total amount of hydrogen that is used is tiny, certainly not enough to make a difference in fuel consumption. If you were to install more fuel cells to produce more hydrogen then you would have to have more electricity coming from the vehicle’s alternator to produce the extra hydrogen. This would place an extra load on the alternator and on the vehicle’s engine. If the engine is working harder, then obviously it would be using more fuel.

Someday maybe we will have cars that run on hydrogen in some way or another, but that day will not come until we figure out a way to produce massive amounts of electricity in a manner that is relatively cheap and does not pollute. Which is not to say that we couldn’t do this now.

When Will We Learn?

If you want to save fuel get a smaller car. Many people insist on driving cars that are bigger than they need or have bigger engines then they need. If they want to drive this kind of car then that’s fine, but they shouldn’t expect to have 300 horsepower and 40 mpg. Other things that can help save fuel are simple things like obeying speed limits, and avoiding jack rabbit starts every time the light turns green. Most cars will also get better fuel economy if speed limits are obeyed.

Vehicle maintenance also helps to save fuel. If your check engine light is on, get it fixed because there is a good chance that the failure will cause a reduction in fuel economy, because it most certainly causes an increase in emissions. Remember simple things like replacing spark plugs at recommended intervals, and keeping all services current. These things are not difficult to remember, all you have to do is follow the manufacturers recommended service schedule. This can always be found in the owner’s manual or through some searching online.

What about tire pressure? Some politicians in Washington like to tell us that we should just check our tire pressure every time the price of gas starts to jump up. Does this really make a difference? It does make a difference but it is pretty slight. Somewhere in the neighborhood of .03% for every PSI that you are low. This adds up eventually but keeping your tires inflated properly is more about making sure they don’t wear out too quickly, or about keeping the car safe, then it is about fuel economy.

So if you want to save money at the pumps the most important things are: drive a smaller car, drive with a little more self-control, and take care of your car. Whatever you do, don’t buy any crazy device to hook up to your engine, or to plug in here or there. None of these work because if they did, everyone would have them.