Where’s the Dipstick?

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Recently by Eric Peters: Speeding Praetorians

You probably know all about checking the air pressure of your car’s tires to make sure it’s up to spec – columns like that are as inescapable as “news” stories about the Kardashians. So I thought it might be good to mention five things about cars you may not have heard about:

Radar detectors and some new cars may not be compatible

That’s because a growing number of new cars radiate their own radar (and laser) signatures, which can trigger false alerts. A radar detector is a receiver; it detects the signals emanating from a cop’s radar gun. But it will also detect signals emanating from your car’s radar (or laser) assisted cruise control or similar in-car technology. I use a Valentine 1 – considered to be one of the best radar detectors available – and in certain new cars I’ve test-driven, the device was rendered effectively useless by the vehicle’s factory electronics. Each time the car’s “active cruise control” (as an example) sent out a pulse, it triggered a V1 false alert – lights flashing, warnings beeping. I could not filter out the “noise” coming from the car, perhaps because in most cases there is no way to fully disable or turn off the systems that emit the signals that cause the noise – and cause the detector to false-alert.

It is also possible that the use of a radar detector in a car that emits a radar (or laser) signal could cause a problem with the car’s systems. I’ve noticed stern warning labels affixed to the windshield of some new cars I’ve test driven recently specifically warning against the use of radar detectors – and that any problems resulting from their use will void your warranty coverage.

So, be advised before you spend $400 for a high-end detector – or $40,000 for a high-end car with radar (or laser) based technology.

Some new cars don’t have dipsticks

In some late model (circa 2006 and newer) BMWs – also Audis, Porsches and Mercedes Benzes – the only way to check the oil level is by consulting (cue Dr. Strangelove voice) a computer. The physical dipstick under the hood has been eliminated. Instead, there are sensors built into the oil sump tied into the car’s computer/driver information center. The owner surfs through a menu to check the oil level without ever having to raise the hood. On the upside, you never have to get your hands dirty. On the downside, this way of checking the oil level adds a layer of arguably unnecessary technology – replacing a simple, virtually foolproof way of doing the job with one that depends on electronics (and software) that by its nature is both more likely to eventually experience bugs (for example, the in-sump oil level sensor getting covered with varnish over time) and cost you money when those bugs crop up.

Ironically, the cars that tend not to have dipsticks anymore – BMWs, especially – are also among the most (supposedly) enthusiast-oriented cars on the market. You’d think enthusiasts – gearhead types who like to do things themselves – would want to check their oil themselves, too.

Apparently, not so much!

“Smart” air bags can be fooled

Most new cars have “smart” air bags – meaning, there are weight sensors embedded in the seats that tell the system whether there’s a person sitting there – and also how big a person is sitting there. The air bag is then either turned off – or on – and its potential rate (and force) of deployment adjusted to accommodate a small – or large – adult. Or a child. Usually, the system is also tied into the seat belt warning system. If there’s no one in the seat, there’s no seat belt chime if the belt’s not buckled. That’s the theory. In practice, these smart air bags can be pretty dumb, too.

In at least a half-dozen different make/model new cars I’ve tested recently, all it took was a duffel bag – or a bag of groceries – to convince the system that a person was sitting in the passenger seat. In one case, it only took the weight of a “Mile High” turkey breast sub to do the job. The “passenger air bag on” light illuminated – and the annoying buckle-up buzzer commenced its racket.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find an off button for either the buzzer – or the air bags.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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