Friday, January 24, 2014

Accessories as You Like Them

Program this light if you want.

Cars today are jam packed with whistles and bells of every manner. This is true both literally and figuratively. Of course we the consumers have brought this upon ourselves because we like being surrounded by fancy features.

The number of warning lights, chimes, beeps, and other sights and sounds has reached a level where most people don’t even know what some of them mean. Many times theses warning buzzers will sound at times that can make the driver completely insane.

All new cars and trucks have many other features that are now more automated then they used to be. Things like power door locks that lock automatically when the vehicle exceeds five miles per hour, and unlock the doors when the transmission is shifted back into park are very common on all new cars.

Something most people do not know is that many of these features can be customized in the way they operate. If you don’t like the way the seat belt warning beeps at you every thirty second when you are not wearing your seat belt, it can be set to a mode that only allows the light to come on once after the car is first started and then shut off never to bother you again.

Things like automatic doors locks can be completely disabled if you like. Maybe you want the doors to lock when you shift into drive instead of when you hit 5 miles per hour. Most cars can have this type of thing changed very easily.

Since everything on cars and trucks today is computer controlled, it is very simple to give the computer different instructions on how and when to automatically activate one system or another. Besides programming things like power windows and door locks, other things can be changed such as what size tire you have on the vehicle. The size of the tire relates to function and accuracy of the speedometer. If you have a truck on which you install bigger tires your speedometer is now going to be off a couple of miles per hour. However, the bigger tire size can be programmed into the computer that calculates speed and then your speedometer will be accurate again.

Generally speaking there are two different ways to program these features. The easiest and perhaps best way is to use a scan tool. This is the device that the auto shop uses to communicate with the various computers on your vehicle for diagnostic purposes. On today’s cars these tools can be used for programming purposes as well. The factory scan tool that the dealerships have will always have to most capability when it comes to making these types of changes.

These tools can not only be used to program the function of a warning light or buzzer, but they can also be used to program major accessories. A feature such as cruise control can easily be added to a vehicle that did not come equipped with it from the factory. All that must be done is to have the switch installed in the steering wheel or the dash, and then use the scan tool to tell the engine control computer to enable cruise control programming. All of the other hardware the cruise control needs to operate is already there serving other purposes. With the correct switches and the correct programming, these components can then be used by the computer to provide cruise control.
The other way to make more minor changes to accessories is to follow a special programming sequence. Using things such as the ignition switch and power window or door lock switches, or maybe the park brake lever or climate control buttons. An example of how a programming sequences would work with these devices might be something such as: turn on the ignition switch, hit the unlock button, turn the ignition switch off, turn the ignition switch back on, hit the lock button, then pull and release the park brake lever two times and listen for the dash to beep at you. Once the dash beeps at you the vehicle is in programming mode and you can push the fan speed up switch to make your selection. Once the selection is made, turn the ignition switch off to reset the system.

This sounds like some kind of crazy secret code and perhaps it is, but it provides a way to program these features without having to use a special scan tool. Once in a while the owner’s manual will actually tell you how to do some of these things but most of the time it won’t. These programming sequences can usually be found online, but the best place to find them is in the factory service manual. Sometimes even this will not have the information on programming. Sometimes these things are only known to the engineers.
Watching a movie on this screen might be hazardous
to your health.

For example a few auto manufacturers who shall remain nameless, have some models equipped with navigation systems and rear seat DVD players. When movies are played and showing on the screen for the rear seat passengers, if you know the proper programming sequence you can make the movie play on the navigation screen where front seat passengers can also see it. The manufacturers made this possible for the purpose of performing network data bus diagnostics. The service manual won’t tell you any of this but the information is easily found online.

So if you have some whistle or bell on your vehicle that annoys you, or just doesn't work the way you wish it would. Do a little research and find out if it can be changed. If you paid so much money for this car you ought to have the accessories work the way you would like them too. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Indy, America’s Racing Paradise

Just about any self-respecting car nut will tell you they have a bucket list of places they must visit to pay homage to these silly machines they love. Chances are the list would include places like the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan, or perhaps attending speed week at the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah’s west desert. Another amazing place that would have to be on the list would be the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hall of Fame Museum in Indianapolis, Indiana. Recently, the car nut that writes this column was able to visit this sacred ground while vacationing with the family. This was a great destination for the family, even my moody teenage daughter had a good time there.

The Brickyard as it is affectionately known was originally built in 1909 by a couple of early car nuts. Why is it that anytime some new technology hits the market, it’s not long before someone decides to see how fast it will go? The track was dirt to begin with but was almost immediately repaved with bricks, 3.2 million bricks to be precise. This is why it is called the brickyard. Over time the bricks were slowly replaced with asphalt until 1961 when the last of the bricks were paved over.

The famous bricks of the "Brickyard."
Today the start/finish line is marked with three feet of the original bricks. Since 1996 it has become customary for the winner of any of the races that take place on this circuit to ceremoniously stoop down to kiss the bricks before ascending the winner’s podium. Of course yours truly was not about to be left out. Although I didn't win a race at Indy, I did feel the need to participate in this sacred right while touring the facilities.

This track hosts three big races each year: the Indianapolis 500 of the Indy Car Series, The Brickyard 400 of NASCAR, and the Indianapolis GP of the MotoGP motorcycle racing series. In the past the American Grand Prix of Formula One has also been held there, but that race now happens elsewhere.

Of these big events the one with the most history is of course the Indy 500. Other than a few years during times of world war this event has occurred every year for over 100 years. Because of the history and tradition that surrounds this race; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a museum and hall of fame dedicated to the driver’s and their machines that have won this historic race.

Vintage racers in the Hall of Fame Museum.
These were all winners 100 years ago.
The museum houses most of the original winning cars from the last century, all displayed side by side. The evolution of the race cars at Indy is very easy to see as you walk up and down the many aisles. I was told by one of the guides working in the museum that all of the cars still run, and are still just as track worthy as they were on the day when they won the coveted Borg-Warner trophy.

They said the cars are taken out on the track occasionally to burn the cobwebs out of them, and for photo ops. One of the old race cars was on the track a couple of years ago and suffered a major engine failure. No problem, the museum employs mechanics to take care of such things and they were able to get everything repaired, even though they had to custom fabricate a few of the parts that were needed.

When visiting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway you can check out the museum, go for a ride around the track with a tour guide, or you can do the deluxe tour. Obviously the latter is a must for anyone who really wants to see the facilities. This all inclusive tour takes you out on the track where you can get out and wander up and down the main stretch, kiss the bricks, and tour the various media centers and garages.

If you are a truly devoted fan you would come back Memorial Day weekend to be one of the quarter million fans in the stands watching the Indy 500. I suppose that will be the next thing on my list.

The fastest car to ever turn a lap at Indy.  This happened back in the late 90's when they still allowed turbocharging.

View of the main straight from the luxury suites.

The Borg-Warner Trophy. For the winner of the Indy 500.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway control room. Nobody goes in or out of this room one the race begins. Notice all
of the VCRs below the monitors. Nothing is recorded digitally so the official record of the race cannot be tampered
with or secretly transmitted out of the room for tampering.
The famous Gasoline Alley. This is where the garages are located.
The back stretch.
The start/finish line. The line of bricks goes all the way through the pits.
The media room where reporters from around the world keep track of the race. Your humble blogger is pictured. 
Where winners and losers get a chance to tell the tale to the media.
Headed towards turn 1. The tower shows who is currently winning and losing.
The world famous Pagoda.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Forever Fluid

One of the top priorities of automotive engineers today is to make vehicles that require less maintenance. In this they have done an excellent job making cars last a long time without all the routine visits to the mechanic for nothing more than preventative maintenance. When a vehicle requires less maintenance it is cheaper for the owner, and less of a hassle. The auto manufacturers know that people want to buy cars that require less maintenance so they have engineered them this way.

Spark plug changes are only due every 100k miles or so, drive belts last a very long time, and even the old oil change really doesn't need to be performed as often as it used to be. The modern automobile is the most trouble free, and maintenance free contraption ever built by the hand of man. Heavy-duty trucks, heavy equipment, and other similar vehicles of the modern era are not as trouble free, and maintenance free as the automobile.

Lately however, it seems as if engineers have taken things a little too far when it comes to reducing preventative maintenance. Now, it is very common for a vehicle to have lifetime fluids. This means that some of the fluids on some vehicles are said to be good for the life of the vehicle. One of the most common lifetime fluids is transmission fluid.

With advanced technology in the processing of petroleum products we now have many types of automotive fluids that are labeled synthetic. This title usually refers to the way they are produced. Advanced processing methods give the end product better properties for performing the function for which it was designed. One of the abilities of these new synthetic fluids is greater longevity in the gear box or other mechanical assembly where it works to reduce friction and condition parts. These fluids do last longer.

The term lifetime in reference to fluids is somewhat misleading, and really rather vague. What is the definition of lifetime? Are they talking about the life of the vehicle, the life of the owner, or maybe just the life of the warranty? Maybe they mean the lifetime of the fluid itself. As if to say the fluid has a lifetime, and they are proposing that the fluid doesn't need to be changed until its life has run out. That would be very misleading.

The other thing that is a bit beguiling is many times forever fluid only applies to vehicles that follow the normal maintenance schedule. Most vehicles still use a normal and a severe maintenance schedule. The idea is to follow the one that applies to you. Of course based on the definition of each schedule just about everyone is severe.

The problem with lifetime fluid in this case is the normal schedule calls many fluids lifetime fill. So if you live in Florida and never drive too fast, or too slow, or too little, or too much, then you never have to replace the transmission fluid, or the differential fluid, or the power steering fluid. If you are severe like 99% of drivers, the fluid must be changed according to the recommended interval.

Some vehicles literally do not give any recommendation on the service interval of their lifetime fluids. The engineers literally mean to say that the fluid never wears out. This of course cannot be true but to the original owner of the vehicle who keeps it for 10 years or 120k miles they really do not need to worry about fluid service.

So, if you purchase a vehicle with transmission fluid that is lifetime fill, when do you need to possibly have the fluid serviced anyway? A reasonable interval for servicing just about any type of alleged lifetime fluid is about 100k miles. This is not really all that bad because it might mean that the average used car buyer still has to only service the fluids of this vehicle maybe once in the time they own it. Automotive engineers have done a good job of reducing maintenance costs on cars, but they will never eliminate the need for fluid service.