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.