Cola-Proofed for your Protection

Did you have breakfast in your car this morning? Grab lunch at a drive-thru? Suck down a Snapple in the car on the way home? While the answers to these questions might seem an esoteric bit of trivia, they are actually important to auto manufacturers. Why? Because what you eat and drink is also what you spill, and what you spill can have repair and even safety ramifications.

These days cupholders are as ubiquitous as brakes, and automakers vie with one another to come up with good, safe solutions to holding drinks securely. Todd Spaulding, a transmission and driveline engineering technical expert for Ford Motor Company, has been conducting spill tests for several years on all Ford-built products to ensure that your errant soft drink doesn't bring ruin to your car.

"It's sort of an interesting problem," said Spaulding. "Cup holders have become the norm in today's vehicles, and as we move to more vehicles with console-mounted shifters, we're seeing things come together in bad ways."

Sticky liquids like fruit juice or soda can collect on the sliders -- those small pieces of plastic that move as you shift from park to drive -- making it harder to shift or potentially jamming the shifter altogether. Many shifters contain electronics that liquid spills can damage. Some of the electronics are as simple as small bulbs lighting the "PRNDL." More sophisticated designs use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to illuminate the shiftgate. The LEDs are mounted to a circuit board that could short out and freeze the shifter in park.

"Think of it this way," Spaulding said. "If you dumped a whole cup of cola in your stereo, it would stop working, too."

To address the issues, Spaulding and his team have developed a sophisticated test to make sure all Ford's shifters can survive a dousing from your supersized diet cola.

Spaulding says the test in the past required an engineer simply to "throw a cup of soda on the shifter." Today's test is a bit more sophisticated and, most important, repeatable and closer to what happens in the real world.

A fixture suspends a large cup in a small frame supported at 45 degrees over the shifter. Spaulding fills the cup with 12 ounces of soda (the equivalent of one can), pulls a trigger, and the cup drops and sends fluid all over the shifter.

While it is not like the shift hitting the fan, "it's pretty severe how much soda hits the shifter," Spaulding said. The test is repeated 12 times, using a different shifter each time to make sure the design is capable. The tests have led to design changes in the current vehicles to help route the fluid away from the shifter.

"It's really not anything too dramatic or exciting," the spill expert said. "It's similar to the gutters on your house."

What's equally as interesting as testing the shifters is the experimenting they went through to determine what they use to test the shifters. After they tried all kinds of liquids and different brands of soda, they found that cola provided the most severe test for a shifter. Spaulding said he had figured that the lime-green, syrupy sodas with their high sugar content would be the worst. But when the researchers poured it on the shifter, it just beaded up like water on a freshly waxed car hood.

"Cola doesn't do that," Spaulding said. "It thins out and runs into all the nooks and crannies."

If Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini spills something in a car interior these days it is likely to be Coca-Cola's C2. It tastes like Coke with half the calories.

Ford eyeballing 4-Point Safety Belts

To many people the expression "belt-and-suspenders" is a classic description of overkill - doing more than is necessary. But new advances in seatbelt design might mean that the belt-and-suspenders approach won't kill, but instead will save lives. Responding to the changing demographics (read aging) of today's driving population, Ford Motor Company is researching advanced, next-generation safety belt technology that incorporates a four-point design much like the proverbial belt and suspenders in lieu of the familiar three-point safety belt. The goal is to help further reduce the number of annual vehicle fatalities, which are at their lowest levels since 1994.

"Even with the variety of advanced features and technologies offered on today's vehicles, the single most important piece of safety technology in a car or truck today remains the safety belt," said Dr. Priya Prasad, Ford Technical Fellow for Safety. "That's why we're working hard to further improve safety belt and restraint technologies in the future."

Ford's research into this new safety belt designs is being driven in part by the company's desire to meet the needs of an aging driving population and their changing physiology. Government research shows that more than 2,000 lives could be saved and thousands of injuries could be prevented annually if the nationwide safety belt use rates climbed from the current rate of about 82 percent to 90 percent. Recent customer research has revealed  that consumers perceive four-point belts to be safer as well as more comfortable and, depending on their design, easier to use than traditional three-point belts. So they might spur increased use.

These insights came after a round of testing Ford's prototype belt system with thousands of customers and employees of all demographics and sizes, soliciting input from both a static safety belt display and from drivers of a Mustang Cobra especially equipped with a prototype four-point safety belt system that buckles at the center of the waist, not unlike your pants. People of various shapes and sizes evaluated the new belts, which were developed and refined after more than 5,000 consumers provided feedback of various safety belt systems demonstrated at U.S. and European auto shows. In the latest round of customer research, consumers are assessing ease of use, comfort and their likelihood to buckle up on a regular basis. Ford engineers are using their feedback -- and the correlating data -- to refine safety belts of the future. While the four-point safety belt currently is not allowed by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208, Ford is working with lawmakers to demonstrate the benefits of this new four-point safety belt technology in hopes that the regulations might be changed.

"A number of technical challenges still need to be overcome before implementing these restraint systems," Prasad said. "If we are successful in implementing these technologies, we will be redefining the nature of future occupant restraint systems."

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley, who writes about the auto industry and the human condition, has a great deal of experience with restraints.

Guard your Car

Sure, the auto theft rate has moderated in the last few years.  We told you that last week in the first portion of this two-part look at auto-related crime.  But the moderating theft rate is of little solace to those who live in Western states, where the crime wave continues unabated, and it won't do much for your peace of mind if you have an in-demand vehicle, because thieves are out there, and they want your car.

So what can you do to keep your car safely in your hands?  We consulted the experts at insurance company GEICO, and they had these suggestions:

Keep your vehicle locked at all times, even while driving. Close all windows and sunroofs, no matter how hot it is, when parking.  And, duh, never leave your keys in the car.

When leaving your car, park in busy, well-lit areas. Thieves prefer to work in the dark. Leave your car in park or in gear with the wheels turned toward the curb or some other obstruction, so the bad guys won't be able to tow it easily.  And don't tempt Fate -- avoid leaving valuables inside your vehicle where passersby can see them.

If thieves wanted to work for a living they would, so capitalize on their laziness by making it hard for them to steal your car.  Install an anti-theft system in your vehicle if it doesn't have one. A mechanism that locks onto the steering wheel can be a very visible sign that you've taken steps to protect your vehicle, while ignition cut-off systems prevent a car from being started. Some new cars come with passive alarms that activate automatically when the key is removed from the ignition, and one aftermarket system emits a signal that can be tracked by the police. Thieves are reluctant to steal vehicles that can be tracked and recovered quickly, so many insurers offer discounts for these types of systems.

Beware of the "bump-and-rob" technique. It works like this:  Carjackers bump your car from the rear, then steal it when you get out to look for damage.  To prevent this gambit, when stopped at a traffic light, leave room to maneuver around the vehicle ahead if you need to. If another car bumps yours and you feel threatened, drive to a well-lit, well-populated area (Times Square comes to mind) before getting out to survey damage. And if you have a cell phone, call the police for assistance.

Do not leave registration or title or the British crown jewels in the car. Too often a car thief is pulled over and gets away from the police because he or she can produce the auto registration. If multiple drivers use the vehicle, the best suggestion is to hide the registration in a secret location that only the owners know, like a Swiss bank or behind the refrigerator.

Look around. Be aware of your surroundings, especially in garages, parking lots and gas stations. If it is your own garage, it should seem familiar to you, so don't panic.

Know where you're going. Avoid known high-crime areas, like downtown Bagdad, even if the alternate route takes a little longer.

If confronted by a carjacker, do not resist. In fact, compliment him on his outfit and ask him if you can get him a drink of water or a Coke.  Remember, cars can be replaced, but you can't.  (Although I'm not sure my wife agrees with this one.)

No stranger to crime, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the car industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.

Milestones for Children's Safety

Across the country children are returning to school after their summer vacations, one of many milestones children mark as they make their way to adulthood.  As children graduate from crawling to walking, from highchair to dining room chair, and from tricycle to bicycle, parents silently celebrate the attainment of each milestone.  But in the case of vehicle safety milestones, which are just as important to each child's well-being, many parents miss the important marks or graduate their children too soon. Both issues can put a child's safety at risk. Since vehicle crashes can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere, it is important to help keep kids safe from the infant seat to the driver's seat, so parents should look at back-to-school time as an opportunity to evaluate and decide if their children are ready to move to the next vehicle safety milestone.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children older than the age of one, and many of these unnecessary injuries and deaths can be prevented through the use of age- and size-appropriate restraints and rear seating for children prior to the teen years. In order to protect children as they grow, State Farm and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia recommend that parents enforce their children's safety restraint needs at the following milestones:

Preschool (approximately three to five years old) -- If the child is under four years old and weighs less than 40 pounds, he or she should ride in a child safety seat that has a five-point harness system. At 40 pounds, move him/her from a forward-facing child safety seat to a belt-positioning booster seat. The lap belt should rest comfortably below the hip bones, and the shoulder belt should be snug and cross the center of the child's shoulder. The child should remain in the booster seat until he/she is about eight years old or four feet nine inches tall.  (Note: you may feed and provide water to your child as she or he remains in the booster seat for that lengthy period of time.)

Elementary School (approximately five - 11 years old) -- If the child is under eight years old and under four feet nine inches tall, he/she should remain in a booster seat using a lap-and-shoulder seat belt. If the child is older than eight years old and over the four foot nine inch milestone, move him/her from the booster seat to a vehicle lap-and-shoulder seat belt in the back seat.

Middle School (approximately 11-14 years old) -- All children should remain in the back seat until the age of 13.  After that they can taste life from the front seat.

High School (approximately 14-18 years old) -- It is generally appropriate for teens to ride up front, but only if they are using lap and shoulder seat belts correctly. (And not if they are listening to loud music with inappropriate lyrics.) Whether the teen is a driver or passenger, he/she must use proper safety restraints at all times, which is not easy when you're a teen.

Parents play a critical role in shaping behavior and forming good habits. First, parents must make child passenger safety practices non-negotiable. Second, parents must demonstrate proper safety habits by always buckling up themselves since children tend to mimic the behaviors of those closest to them. Lastly, positive reinforcement promotes positive behaviors, as my wife could tell you.

Based in Cleveland, auto journalist Luigi Fraschini writes frequent about safety issues.

Avoid Danger this Summer

Hot fun in the summertime -- that's something Americans are fond of, but hot summer temperatures, heavily loaded vehicles and poorly maintained tires can spell disaster.  These three factors can combine to produce sudden tire failure, what is commonly referred to as a blowout, and that, in turn, can lead to loss of vehicle control.  The result could well be a tragic accident.

The vehicle experts at GM Goodwrench say poor maintenance of a vehicle's tires is a risk no motorist can afford. While many motorists rely on their tires without giving them a second (or even first) thought, maintaining tires can help avoid premature and/or uneven wear, poor performance and even the aforementioned blowouts.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates tire failures or blowouts contribute to more than 400 deaths and 10,000 injuries in the U.S. each year. Yet statistics show that some drivers don't follow the basic tire maintenance guidelines that can help prevent tire failures. According to the Car Care Council, 26 percent of the vehicles inspected at checkpoints during Car Care Month 2004 had low air pressure in one or more tires.

"Although today's tires are more technologically advanced than ever before, regular visual inspections and maintenance are critical to enabling tires to perform at their best," said Doug Herberger, GM North America vice president and general manager of service and parts operations.

Underinflation is the leading cause of tire failure, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, because underinflated tires create internal friction that forces them to work harder. This can be compounded by summer temperatures and vehicles that are heavily loaded.  Overloading creates excessive stresses and heat and can lead to tire failure and a crash.  Tiresafety, which offers a wide variety of tire safety tips, notes that with today's tires underinflation cannot be readily detected by the naked eye.  Instead, it's necessary to check tire pressure using an accurate gauge.

Changes in outdoor temperature can affect the rate at which a tire loses air. Typically, a tire loses one to two pounds of pressure per month, and even more in warm weather.

To help avoid underinflation, the Rubber Manufacturers Association recommends checking the air pressure in your tires at least once a month and before every long trip.  If they are underinflated, bring them up to the manufacturer's suggested tire pressure specified in the owner's manual.

Tires should be checked when they are cold, that is, before they have run for one mile. Experts also say you should never "bleed" or reduce air pressure when tires are hot.  It's normal for pressure to build up as a result of driving.

Remember, too, if your tire sustains a blowout, you can maintain control of your vehicle.  The key to this is avoiding panic.  For instance, don't slam on your brakes.  That can cause your car to swerve in the direction of the blowout. Instead, gently apply the brakes and gently guide the vehicle to a safe area off the road.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on safety-related issues.