Posts tagged ‘car’

Why Some Cars Have Fake Convertible Roofs

By Chad Upton | Editor

Have you ever seen a car that appears to be a convertible, but you’re almost certain that car is not available as a convertible? Chances are, you were looking at a “landau” car.

Large sedans, town cars and of course hearses are popular cars for Landau conversions, although the occasional sport sedan or midsized car is fashioned with it too. I say “conversions,” because there are no mainstream automobile manufacturers who currently offers this option. In the past, the Detroit automakers offered it on some vehicles from the 1960s through the 1990s. To understand why, we have to go back a century.

Cars replaced horse drawn carriages as the way to travel long distances. Convertible carriages were named “Landau” carriages after the city of Landau (Germany), where convertible carriages were first produced. Landau carriages typically had soft tops that were stored behind the passenger seats and deployed to cover the back, top and sides of passengers for privacy and protection from uncomfortable weather — this exact feature is still evident on contemporary baby carriages (aka strollers, buggies, prams, push chairs). (more…)

November 22, 2010 at 3:00 am 4 comments

How Does Information Get On a CARFAX Report?

By Chad Upton | Editor

It’s not unusual for somebody to completely destroy their car and walk away unharmed.

This happens because newer cars are designed to crumple on impact, just like a bike helmet made from dense foam. The frame, hood and even the power train components absorb the energy from the impact in order to help protect the occupants. Of course, air bags may also deploy, which protect the occupants from hitting hard surfaces inside the vehicle.

When an insurance company declares a car as a “total loss” it means they are not going to pay to fix the car; although, they may sell the vehicle to somebody who plans to use it for spare parts. That person may then fix the car and try to sell it.

Unfortunately, a car that has been in a major accident may have hidden safety and reliability problems. So, if you’re buying a used car, you’ll want to know its history.

If you’ve ever looked at a used car, you’ve probably come across CARFAX.

It’s a service that provides historical information about used cars. For $35 or less, you can enter the VIN (vehicle identification number) of a used car and get a report about its ownership, accident history, mileage discrepancies, lemon status, flood damage, fleet use (taxi, police…etc) and many other things the seller may not want you to know.

I think this is a great idea, but I’ve always wondered how they get all the information.

hd car dvr

I was talking to a guy that runs an auto body shop, so I asked him. He said that he has done work on cars that were nearly totaled and the information did not show up on CARFAX; he had also done minor work that has shown up.

He said that CARFAX buys info from insurance companies and other sources. Some insurance companies have a non-disclosure agreement, where they will not disclose information about your car and its accidents while other insurance companies are willing to sell that information to make money.

I verified this information with CARFAX and it’s true. CARFAX gets information from thousands of sources and has over 6 billion records on file. They have deals with motor vehicle bureaus in every US State and Canadian Province, where they get information about mileage, flood damage, titles, lemon buybacks, accidents, thefts, liens and ownership transfers.

They also get information from auto auctions, car dealers, repair and service facilities, rental companies, state inspection stations, fire departments, law enforcement, car manufacturers, import/export companies and many others. That’s not to say that all companies of these types provide this information, but many do.

In some cases, they have mutually beneficial relationships. For example, car dealers may provide information about vehicles they service, but they may also request information about used cars that they want to take as trade-ins, buy at auctions or sell to their customers.

In any case, CARFAX warns that they may not always have all of the information, since there are many sources that they do not have access to. In 2005, they had 6,100 sources of information. Now, they have grown  to over 34,000 sources.

CARFAX does provide a couple of free services that may be worth while if you’re purchasing a used car. The Lemon Check is one of them. This free service, will tell you if the car you’re about to buy was ever declared a lemon, meaning it was serviced for the same problem 3 times and bought back from the owner by the manufacturer. You definitely want to avoid a lemon.

You can also perform a record check with CARFAX for free. This will tell you how many records they have on file for the VIN you entered. If you’re thinking about buying a CARFAX report, you should try this free option first to see if it’s worth buying the report about the car you’re interested in.

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Sources: CARFAX (Data Sources) MSN, MyVin

Photo: Ian Hampton (cc), jasonbolonski (cc)

August 23, 2010 at 5:00 am 71 comments

Cars Built Since 2008 Have Tire Pressure Warning Lights

By Chad Upton | Editor

Last week, I was driving behind a car with a tire that was nearly flat. The tire was so low, it was almost riding on the rims.

At the next red light, I waved at the driver and they opened their window. They put their cell phone down while I told them about the tire. They were surprised, thanked me and went back to talking on their phone. Even though there was a service station across the street, where they could have easily added air or at least checked the tire, they drove off like nothing was wrong.

I was shocked.

Apparently, some people don’t understand how dangerous a flat tire can be, not to mention the poor gas mileage and possible damage to your wheel. In fact, it’s not just this person. 33% of drivers don’t know what the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) warning light is when it lights up on their dashboard.

Since 2008, all cars in the US are required to have a tire pressure monitoring system. Many cars, especially luxury cars and SUVs, have had them for longer, but the importance of these systems became clear during the Bridgestone/Firestone Tire debacle in the year 2000. Some sources report there may have been as many as 250 deaths and 3000 catastrophic injuries from under-inflated tires and that tire pressure monitoring systems could have saved lives and reduced injuries.

The tire pressure monitoring system will illuminate an icon on your instrument cluster when the pressure in any tire drops more than 25% below the recommended inflation level. The icon is a cross section of a bulging tire with an exclamation point inside of it.

Some cars have more advanced systems that will identify which tire is under-inflated. The more advanced systems can also tell you if a tire is over-inflated and when it is just a warning that can be addressed soon or if it is an emergency that requires immediate attention.

As the seasons change and the weather gets warmer or cooler, tire pressure changes too — that’s a good time to pay extra attention to tire pressure. If your vehicle warns you of a tire pressure problem, you should pull over to check the tires. This could really be a life saver, especially if you’re driving at highway speeds when the light comes on.

Whether you have this light or not, you should check your tire pressure regularly, and especially if they’re bulging. Most service stations have an air compressor to fill your tires, many of these are equipped with a pressure gauge that you can use without turning on the compressor (which costs money in some cases). Otherwise, the service station may be able to lend you a gauge.

On the inside of the driver’s door frame, there is usually a sticker that indicates the proper tire pressure for your vehicle. If not, check your manual.

Your manual will also tell you how to calibrate the tire pressure monitoring system. If your system is capable of telling you which tire is improperly inflated and you check the pressure in that tire, only to find that it is perfect, then your tires were probably rotated without calibrating the system to match the new tire locations.

Some systems use wireless sensors on each wheel, these are known as direct measurement systems and they are more expensive. The other main type of system relies on the ABS sensors to determine that one wheel is turning at a slightly different speed, indicating it is low. This system is cheaper, but it only works when the vehicle is in motion.

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Sources: Jalopnik, Firestone Tire Recall, USA Today, NHTSA

Photo: jronaldlee (cc),  dimmerswitch (cc)

August 13, 2010 at 5:00 am 2 comments

Air Conditioning Affects Gas Mileage

By Chad Upton | Editor

In most cars, the air conditioner’s compressor is powered by a drive belt on the engine. When the air conditioner is activated, the compressor adds resistance to your engine. That extra resistance means your engine requires more fuel to turn at the same speed.

In other words, using your air conditioner burns more gas than not using it. Modern cars have very efficient air conditioners, but this truth still stands.

On a hot summer day, you have to keep cool. Does that mean it’s more fuel efficient to drive with your windows down?

Yes and no.

The Society of Automotive Engineers performed a study that examined this question in detail. They performed wind tunnel and track experiments comparing a car and an SUV. With the windows down, the car was half as efficient at 50 mph (80 km/h) than the SUV’s at 30 mph (50 km/h). It’s clear that driving the car with windows down has a dramatic effect on fuel economy, but it affected the SUV even more, especially when a 10 mph (16 km/h) crosswind was added in the wind tunnel.

Consumer Reports found that below 40 mph (65 km/h), drivers are better off with their windows down and air conditioner off.

Jason Toews from GasBuddy.com found at speeds above 45 mph (70 km/h), “wind drag becomes an issue.” He says, “Drive at speeds over 55 mph with windows down and you’ll decrease fuel economy by up to 20 percent or greater.”

Myth Busters has also looked at this issue on a couple occasions. The first time around, their methodology was flawed, so they tried it a second time. The second time, they came to the same conclusion as Consumer Reports and GasBuddy, that windows down are more efficient than running the air conditioner at speeds less than 45-55 mph (70-90 km/h) and the drag at higher speeds makes the air conditioner the more efficient option.

Of course, results vary by vehicle.

There are many factors other than windows and air conditioning that affect fuel economy: drive train, power-train, body aerodynamics and tire rolling resistance. If you want to know exactly how it affects your car, you might try experimenting for yourself. Some cars have a driver information center that displays fuel economy, otherwise you could order an after market product, such as CarChip Pro ($75-$85), which may help you get that data. If you’re interested, some of these are explored in more detail in another post, The Ideal Vehicle Speed for Best Fuel Economy.

If it’s hot outside, you should probably start with your windows down anyway. This gives your air conditioner a bit of a break by clearing the extremely hot air out of the car first.

Do prefer windows down or the air conditioner on?

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Sources: SAE (PDF), MythBusters (Ep 22, Ep 38), Edmunds, Bankrate, Consumer Reports, Missouri Gov

Photo: Tomás Fano (cc)

August 10, 2010 at 5:00 am 12 comments

Warning Gauges are Usually Center Normal

By Chad Upton | Editor

Even if you don’t know anything about cars, this can help you spot a problem, even if you don’t know what it is.

Virtually every car has a speedometer and a fuel gauge and you can obviously read those gauges. Many cars also have a tachometer; it measures the engine speed in revolutions per minute (rpm). This can help you understand when to shift gears and when you’re burning the least/most fuel.

Some cars have other gauges too. Generally speaking, the needle on most of these other gauges should be near the middle of the gauge when the vehicle is operating normally. Depending on the gauge, it will usually have a red mark on one or both sides of the gauge, indicating trouble if the needle reaches that mark.

Some of these gauges take a few minutes to settle near the center, particularly the various temperature and pressure gauges that may appear in some vehicles.

These are called center normalized gauges and have been a popular gauge design standard for a long time. With so many in-car distractions, simplifying gauge design makes it easy to identify a problem.

In racing some drivers even tape over the sides of the gauges, leaving on the center visible — then they can only see the needle when it is in the center position, making it even easier to identify a problem.

One of the most popular additional gauges is the engine coolant temperature gauge. It is identified by a symbol that looks like a thermometer partially submerged in liquid. This gauge indicates when your engine is overheating.

The following gauges are not exactly warning gauges, so they’re exempt from the center normal rule: speedometer (mph or km/h), tachometer (rpm), fuel, and turbo (boost).

Of course, not all cars use center normal gauges, but you’ll be able to tell a few minutes after your car has been running normally.

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Sources: Answers.com, umich.edu

Photos: Photo courtesy of Aaron Gold at _cars.about.com_, rastrus (cc)

August 2, 2010 at 5:00 am 2 comments

Sarcastic Secret: Signal Lights

By Chad Upton

Tickers, blinkers, indicators and flashers. They have many names, but only one purpose: to let people know your car is about to change course.

In most vehicles, a lever on the steering column moves up or down to activate flashing lights on either side of the car.

I suspect a lot of people don’t even know their car has such lights, but they’ve been standard on cars since cars.

Maybe it’s a confusing concept, so I’ll try to explain it in a straight forward manner: if you’re about to turn your steering wheel, put these lights on first.

I find that some people use signal lights like the horn. They know they’re there, but they only use them when they need you to move.

Most vehicles also have a way to put all four blinkers on at the same time. The vehicle manual may refer to these as “four way flashers” or “hazard lights” but a lot of people know these as “park anywhere lights.” Their understanding of this feature is, when you want to double park, park in a fire lane or any other no parking zone, these flashing lights give you temporary immunity from parking regulations.

In all seriousness, signal lights first appeared on cars in 1907, but weren’t patented until 1938. Some cars from the 1920s to 1950s used solid (non-blinking) retractable lights on the sides of the car, called a trafficators.

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Source: Wikipeda (Signal Lights)

Photo: Wikimedia (gnu free)

July 23, 2010 at 5:00 am 10 comments

Tires Do Not Protect You During a Vehicle Lightning Strike

By Chad Upton

I’ve always heard that a car is one of the safest places to be during a lightning strike and that is true.

The tires usually get all the credit. As the story goes, tires are rubber and rubber is an insulator, so you don’t get electrocuted in the car because you’re isolated from the ground like a bird on a wire.

It’s a pretty believable story, but it’s not the truth.

If you think about it, the lightning travels thousands of feet through thin air to reach the car — it could easily continue to travel through thin air to get around a few inches of rubber tires. Compared to the power of lightning, tires don’t really provide any protection.

Trains are struck by lightning and the people inside are fine, even though trains have metal wheels, which are great conductors.

Airplanes are regularly struck by lightning in the air. In fact, the FAA estimates that each plane gets struck about once per year.

So why are people safe in these cases?

It’s all because of a principle discovered by Michael Faraday in 1836.

Faraday demonstrated that an electrical charge exists only on the exterior of a hollow conductor and not the interior. He built a wire cage, that is now know as a Faraday cage, to demonstrate that an electrical current flowing through the cage did not produce an electrical current inside the cage.  When you’re in a vehicle, with a conductive exterior shell, you’re inside a Faraday cage and the electrical charge is carried around you.

Faraday cages can also be used to shield against electromagnetic radiation. Coaxial cables are common in most households for carrying TV signals. These cables are design with what amounts to be a built in Faraday cage to protect the inner copper wire from electrical noise.

Microwave ovens are also a good example of a Faraday cage. This principle protects you from exposure to microwaves by turning the inside of the oven into a Faraday cage. The mesh you see on the inside of the door is part of that cage and explains why the glass isn’t perfectly transparent.

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Sources: Wikipedia (Ground, Faraday Cage), Weather Imagery (Cars, Airplanes), Faraday Cage

Photo: jonathan mcintosh (cc)

July 21, 2010 at 5:00 am 18 comments

Lock Your Car Better With Your Chin

By Chad Upton

I think everybody has done it. You’re walking away after parking your car and you can’t remember if you locked it. You turn around to lock it and you’re too far away – or – maybe your car has remote start and you want to warm it before you leave work in the winter. You can see it in the parking lot, but you’re too far away.

There is something that may help.

If you push the car remote against your skin, and then press the button, your body will act like a giant antenna to extend the signal. I don’t know how safe this is, but it works.

I first heard about this a few years ago and I was in disbelief, until I tried it. Not only does it work, according to New Scientist, it can almost double the range of your key fob.

When I first heard about it, I was told to push it against my chin. It turns out you can push it again your arms or other body parts too. It relies on a principle called capacitive coupling, the same principle that the capacitors on electronic circuit boards rely on.

This doesn’t work for all types of radio frequency remotes, it works best with relatively low frequency signals with rapidly changing currents, which is what many car remotes use.

You may have heard that the iPhone 4 is having signal issues when the exterior antenna is touched in a certain way and you may be wondering why it has the opposite affect on the iPhone. The difference between the iPhone problem and capacitive coupling is that there is no insulator between the transmitter and your body with the iPhone, but with your car remote, the plastic case acts like an insulator. Again, this is precisely how capacitors on circuit boards work — two conductors are separated by an insulator.

It should be noted that some car remotes may use a different frequencies and types of signals, so you’ll have to test yours to see if it works for you.

Big thanks to Max Surguy for reminding me about this one, such a great tip!

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Sources: New Scientist

Photo: nailkennedy (cc)

July 9, 2010 at 5:00 am 5 comments

Trap Doors on Car Bumpers

From satellite navigation to chilled cup holders, modern cars are full of high-tech developments that get you from point A to point B without getting lost and with colder refreshments. Overall, car technology has improved the handling, efficiency, style, safety, comfort and entertainment of our cars.

There are even high-tech bumpers out there. If you see bumpers with three or four dimples aligned across the back bumper, those are likely sensors for the backup warning system.

If you see small rectangular patches, that’s what this secret is about. They’re actually pretty low-tech, but still cool.

Even if your car doesn’t have them, maybe you’ve noticed them on other cars while you’re sitting at a red light (they may be found on front and/or rear bumpers).

They look like trap doors that cartoon characters fall through long after the audience spots them and screams at their television to warn the carbon impaired being of the obvious hazard and their impending doom. In reality, they cover anchor points where you can insert a towing eye (aka “tow hook”).

Check your car out during the summer and if you need them in the winter, you’ll know if they’re there. The towing eye is usually stored with the spare tire and/or jack and it screws in behind these covers.

bumper patch open tow hook eye door

Like all of the secrets on this site, there will be somebody reading who already knows this one — that’s cool, you can brag (or complain) about it in the comments, or retweet it and say you knew this, “like 10 years ago.”

Broken Secrets | By: Chad Upton

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July 6, 2010 at 5:00 am 3 comments

Diesel Fuel Nozzles Don’t Fit in Standard Fuel Cars

Diesel cars are not popular in North America. But, diesel engines are fairly popular in pickup trucks and are becoming more popular in North American cars.

Although they have a limited history in America, foreign car manufacturers sell many diesel models in Europe.

Diesel engines are generally very efficient and that behind their new found demand. As diesel becomes more popular, you will likely see more diesel pumps.

This is good if you have a diesel car, potentially bad if you don’t. Diesel pumps present a slight risk to your standard gasoline vehicle — you do not want to put diesel fuel in a car that uses standard unleaded fuel.

Standard engines use spark plugs to burn the fuel, diesel engines use pressure and heat to cause a reaction in diesel fuel. That means standard engines will not burn diesel fuel. If you inadvertently put diesel in an unleaded car, the engine will stop very quickly. It’s not usually a total loss, the fuel system will have to be cleaned, filters will need to be changed and the whole process can cost as much as $600.

But, there is an easy way to avoid this costly mistake. First, diesel fuel dispensers are usually clearly marked with text and with a special color handle (the color varies by station).

Second, the nozzle on the end of a diesel fuel pump is slightly larger than a standard fuel nozzle. That means it won’t fit in your car’s gas hole, at least not that way you’re used to a pump nozzle fitting. If you notice that the nozzle isn’t going as far in as it usually does, check the pump, you might be holding a diesel trigger.

This same principle was used in the 80s when we transitioned from leaded to unleaded fuel. Leaded fuel nozzles wouldn’t not fit in unleaded gas holes.

Checkout some other gas related Broken Secrets:

Broken Secrets | By: Chad Upton

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Sources: Answer Bag, WTSP, Dixon Nozzles (PDF)

Photo: teachernz (cc)

June 9, 2010 at 5:00 am 7 comments

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