What You Think You Know About Cars

If you listen long enough, you'll hear a lot of things about how you should drive and take care of your car. But if you stop and think about it for a second, do you really trust the people who are giving you this automotive advice? Are they the same folks who told you to buy Enron stock? Or who told you that Iraq is the perfect place for a relaxing holiday?

What we're saying here is it is time to take a critical look at what you know about your car, because what you don't know can hurt you, and in a painful spot, too -- right in the wallet. So with the advice and counsel of the service specialists at Chrysler, Jeep, and Dodge, let's take a look at some long-held automotive beliefs and try to determine whether they are myth or hoax... or actually true.

  • Myth, hoax, or truth?: You should always warm your car up before driving on a cold day.

    Answer: Myth. Although the majority of the driving population may consider this to be true, it can actually cause damage to vehicles if done continuously. (Instead of letting your car warm up in your driveway, drive it slowly and easily the first few miles until it comes up to operating temperature.)

  • Myth, hoax, or truth?: You should not blast your vehicle's air conditioner when sitting in traffic or while driving at more than 60 miles per hour.

    Answer: Myth. Vehicle heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are engineered and tested to operate in even the most severe types of driving environments. The air conditioner has cooling fans and a condenser that allow it to operate even under these stressful conditions, so blast away.

  • Myth, hoax, or truth?: It is possible to check your tire tread with a penny.

    Answer: Truth. You should use a proper tire gauge to check tire pressure, but it is possible to check tire tread with the use of a penny. Simply pinch a penny between your thumb and forefinger so Lincoln's head and "In God We Trust" are showing. Insert the penny into a tire tread groove. If the tire covers any part of Lincoln's head, then your tires should have a safe amount of tread. If you can see Lincoln's head in its entirety or any parts of "In God We Trust" are showing, it is time to invest in a new tire. Be sure to check all tires and in different locations on each tire because the amount of wear can vary from tire to tire and from inner tread to outer tread.

  • Myth, hoax, or truth?: If you still have fuel in your gas tank when you refill it, use the same grade of fuel that is currently in the tank.

    Answer: Hoax. As long as you use unleaded brands of gasoline, it will not harm your vehicle if you mix different grades of fuel.

  • Myth, hoax, or truth?: Avoid keeping your vehicle at a constant speed during the first 500 miles of a vehicle's life.

    Answer: The waffling Chrysler folks won't answer this one definitively either way, but most new vehicles no longer require drivers to vary their speeds during the first 500 miles of a vehicle's life, known as the "break-in period." If your vehicle does require the "break-in period," then you should avoid keeping a constant speed during this time. Even varying your speed by several miles per hour should do the trick.

  • Myth, hoax, or truth?: Premium gasoline is best for your vehicle.

    Answer: Hoax, if your vehicle is designed to be run on regular gasoline, then filling your tank with premium will do nothing for you but send you to the poor house. However, if the manufacturer suggests premium fuel for your car...well, you can probably figure it out from there.

  • Myth, hoax, or truth?: Do not park with two wheels on the curb, as it will destroy the vehicle's alignment.

    Answer: Neither; this is true, if done continuously. Service specialists say that repeatedly parking a car with one side's wheels up on a curb to provide more space for passing cars can cause excessive wear or stress to tie rods and suspension bushings and could create alignment issues, and you don't want those; trust us.

  • Myth, hoax, or truth?: If the steering wheel shakes when you drive, there is something wrong with your brakes. Answer: Maybe myth, maybe hoax, maybe true. (Geez, are these Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler people passive-aggressive or what?) While they won't nail this down completely, you can bet if the wheel shakes as you depress the brake pedal, it may mean your brake rotors are unbalanced. If the wheel shakes as you drive, it may be the result of a wheel balance or steering-related issue. If you shake will you drive, you might be withdrawing from caffeine or chair-dancing to the reggae beat.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Frachini can't decide whether his own career is a myth or hoax.

High Tech Top 10

These days a lot of cars can go fast in a straight line, corner with aplomb and stop on a Euro. But if you want to win the favor of technical fanatics those attributes aren't enough. In fact, it seems like they hardly even count.

Today, many high-tech junkies see cars as simple carrying platforms for sophisticated devices that aid communication, navigation and even mastication. (Okay, the last is a stretch but nav systems that offer restaurant information qualify.) So who tracks these technological marvels? None other than a publication called IEEE Spectrum, a monthly published by IEEE, which claims to be the world's largest organization of technology and business leaders. Recently IEEE Spectrum issued a list of the top 10 most technically sophisticated cars for 2003, and the list is illuminating.

In compiling the Top 10, the publication surveyed currently available cars and current concept vehicles and then selected vehicles based on the most significant technological changes. What it identified were vehicles that feature techno-cool technologies such as fingerprint access systems; Bluetooth wireless technology; natural gas (which, depending on the circumstances might not be so cool); zero-emissions propulsion systems; voice-activated devices; and night vision. Austin Powers would dig this stuff, baby.

So, without further ado, the High-Tech Top 10:

1. Volvo Safety Concept Car shows safety beyond the box including night vision and see-through A-pillars; controls for automated seat, pedal and floor adjustment; warning systems that cover blind spots; and moving headlights that follow the lead of the front wheels as they turn. (This last feature, called Pilot Ray in the old days, was an aftermarket option on many 1930s models and appeared on the 1948 Tucker Torpedo.)

2. Saab 9-3 is the first car equipped with Bluetooth wireless technology that connects wireless devices that obey the driver's voice. Thus the driver can operate cellphones, PDAs and computers through a voice-control system. If only children responded to voice control.

3. Honda Civic GX relies solely on natural gas as its fuel. The car is sold with a home fueling station that will feed off of a home's piped-in cooking gas to refill the compressed-gas tanks overnight.

4. Honda FCX is the first car for the U.S. market that will be powered purely by fuel cells. It meets zero-emissions standards by exhaling only water vapor.

5. Cadillac XLR uses several high-tech features to control the ample output of its 4.6-liter V-8 engine in a modern version of the rear-wheel-drive configuration.

6. Audi A8 has one central control system -- called Multi-Media Interface -- that manages a mobile telephone, satellite navigation system, tautness of the air suspension system as well as audio, heating, air conditioning and assorted goodies. Unfortunately, it will not set up your favorite shows on TiVo.

7. Mercedes-Benz SL500 equips the driver with a more sensitive, computer-assisted response to crises, though not of a personal nature. (Hair loss? Mid-life crisis? You're on your own.) The braking system links seamlessly to a stability control system and an active suspension system, which helps keep the tires of the car on the ground when taking a corner.

8. A Chevrolet Trailblazer concept houses a new engine technology under its hood that switches half the cylinders on or off, depending on the load. (Cadillac tried this in the early Eighties and it sucked, but this time it might work.)

9. Toyota Prius uses a gasoline/electric motor hybrid propulsion system that has an output of a small (1.5-liter) engine, while cutting emissions drastically.

10. Fiat Stilo is a smokeless diesel with a 1.2-liter, four-cylinder engine. (Okay, that's not that big a deal, but the magazine did want to name 10.)

Backseat Beat

You might not realize it, but there is a revolution going on in the backseats of vehicles across America. In the past, the backseat was venue of "the license plate game," storytelling, and, when parked, an occasional session of what is quaintly referred to as "necking." But those days are over. Now the backseat of your car, SUV, or minivan has become the competitive battleground of the entertainment and electronics industries.

You want proof? More than one million backseat entertainment systems were sold in 2002, and that number is expected to grow in 2003 as more families take advantage of the videotape, DVD, and gaming options available to them. Almost every 2002 model SUV and minivan offered systems like these as options, and consumer acceptance has been tremendous. Some 96 percent of Nissan Quests, 31 percent of Ford Expeditions, and 30 percent of Ford Windstars were equipped with video systems, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Further research indicates that almost 50 percent of full-size SUV owners report that they plan to buy video systems in their next vehicle. Can you blame them? Anesthetizing children during long car trips with video and games seems much more humane than other options, which include the use of prescription drugs or tying them up in burlap bags.

While systems have been purchased by more and more consumers, a major downside with backseat entertainment has been the difficulty in tuning in live television. Some antenna systems for cars do a decent job of bringing in strong over-the-air signals, but even with the best systems, reception can get sketchy, depending upon vehicle direction and location. Meanwhile, the new generation weaned on the 300-channel satellite TV universe finds over-the-air TV lame at best.

Enter new technology. At the 2003 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, KVH Industries introduced a new system that will allow families to leave their DVDs and videos at home and instead enjoy 300-plus channels of DIRECTV satellite-delivered television entertainment, news, sports, and movies. The new antenna system, called TracVision, will also enable motorists to access more than 50 channels of commercial-free music that are also available to DIRECTV subscribers. Finally, TracVision is expected to be expandable to provide access to mobile, high-speed Internet access via satellite at a future date.

So how was KVH able to get satellite TV reception without using the big, parabolic antennae that are now proliferating on rooftops across the country? The answer is space-age technology worthy of national defense applications.

Where traditional in-motion satellite TV antennas for boats and recreational vehicles use parabolic reflectors and domes to collect and focus satellite signals that stand an ugly 12 to 20 inches high, the ultra-low profile TracVision system incorporates breakthrough phased-array technology to create an antenna that stands only four and a half inches high, making it practical for use on cars, minivans and SUVs without becoming an eyesore.

"For satellite TV to become a reality aboard automobiles, we had to invent an entirely new approach to satellite antennas," Said Kits van Heyningen, KVH president and chief executive officer. "For the first time, a satellite TV antenna offers a rugged, flat design suitable for the family SUV, minivan, or car at an affordable price."

How does it work? To understand it, a degree in physics might be useful, but in layman's terms, TracVision uses a "phased-array" design that integrates hundreds of small antenna elements across a flat surface. By turning this phased array on its azimuth (which is only appropriate for consenting adults) and tilting it slightly, the antenna remains pointed at the satellite in the southern sky, regardless of vehicle motion. At the same time, an electronic "lens" bends the satellite signal so that more of the broadcast energy strikes each individual element. The separate signals from each small antenna element are then recombined to create a single data stream that supports multiple receivers and video screens. With all this technological trickery at work, the ultra-low-profile TracVision A5 in-motion satellite TV antenna can be unobtrusively installed on the roofs of most vehicles.

So if you don't think your kids are watching enough TV, or if you would like to tune into CourtTV, Discovery Channel, or A&E while your spouse pilots the vehicle, the new antenna, which is set to go on the market prior to the summer vacation season, might just be the ticket.

Managing Editor of Driving Today, Jack R. Nerad has three wonderful daughters who love DIRECTV and are remote control virtuosos.


How would you like to get directions downloaded to your vehicle's navigation system with just a phone call? How about ordering flowers for your girlfriend or boyfriend (or both) while you drive? Most of all, how would you like to receive real-time traffic alerts accompanied by alternate routes that will allow you to avoid traffic congestion?

Hey, who wouldn't, right? These features of the future sound very cool. Well, they are cool but they're not of the future. Drivers in the United Kingdom already benefit from all these features and more in a system called Smartnav, which is offered by Trafficmaster, the UK's leading supplier of live traffic information services.

Smartnav is the first system that can be installed in any vehicle to combine satellite navigation, live traffic information and a "personal assistant" to answer questions, guide you to points of interest, and even take orders for flowers. It operates much like General Motors's On-Star system, but additionally, it offers quickly updated traffic information that enables British drivers to avoid traffic snarls en route. Smartnav combines satellite navigation, mobile telephony technology from Motorola and traffic information taken from Trafficmaster's established network of sensors and cameras that cover over 8,000 miles of the UK's main roads.

The Smartnav system works with push-button simplicity. After punching the on-dash button, the driver is connected to a "personal assistant" (PA), who immediately confirms the location of the vehicle via global positioning data. Once in contact with the PA the driver can request route instructions; ask about options for gas, food, and lodging; and make a request like sending flowers or candy. Unlike other systems that require the driver to remember the route instructions, Smartnav directions are downloaded to the vehicle's on-board system and include road numbers. This provides the motorist with clear and concise directions that other comparable systems are unable to provide.

An important advantage to Smartnav is the fact that it operates in or near "real-time." For instance, it stores maps and calculates routes using central Motorola server software based at Trafficmaster's headquarters, unlike other systems that rely on information stored on a CD. This ensures that mapping information can be updated regularly and motorists are not responsible for purchasing expensive new CDs to maintain accurate information.

When directions are calculated and sent to the vehicle, they take into account the quickest and easiest route using Trafficmaster's predictive, historical, live, and incident traffic information. With the addition of Route Guard, an application that proactively monitors traffic congestion, drivers are alerted to problems and are given the option to choose an alternative route to avoid traffic delays. The system also stores over 90,000 points of interest. So, for example, drivers can be directed to the nearest ATM, hospital, or petrol (what we call gasoline) station, as well as museums, "stately homes," art galleries and other tourist attractions.

When it comes to security, Smartnav has other benefits as well. If the car has a collision or breakdown, a PA can immediately connect the driver to emergency or towing services, giving the vehicle's exact position. For motorists who may worry about driving alone or about the possibility of carjacking, a Smartnav PA is at hand to provide reassurance and with a direct line into the "call centre," operators can talk to the driver and, in the case of theft, locate the vehicle. If, on the other hand, the emergency consists of an intense need to come up with a last-minute gift, Smartnav also offers a range of concierge services enabling drivers to order flowers and champagne from the car and have them delivered nationwide.

How much does all this cost? Trafficmaster Smartnav is priced at £499 (about $780) with an annual subscription charge of £120 ($187). Compared to auto manufacturers' in-vehicle systems, which often cost more than $1,000 plus monthly fees, Smartnav seems like a bargain.

A Boston native who now lives in Villeperce, France, Tom Ripley covers the automotive scene and human behavior for a variety of publications.

Running Red Lights

While many drivers fear the stress-inducing crunch of high-speed traffic on Interstate and other multi-lane highways, the most dangerous place on the road might just be the busy corner near your house. If that well-traveled intersection is regulated by traffic signals, odds are that it could be the site of a serious accident. That's because, caught in a time crunch or simply not paying attention, thousands of drivers each day disobey traffic signals, failing to stop on red lights. The toll of this carelessness is staggering.

Each year red light running crashes result in nearly 1,000 deaths and about 90,000 injuries nationally. And, sadly, things are getting worse. Between 1992 and 1998, red light crashes increased at an alarming 18 percent. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 96 percent of drivers fear being hit by a red light runner upon entering an intersection, yet 55.8 percent admit to running red lights.

The leading excuse cited by the red light runners is "being in a hurry!" This sense of entitlement -- my time is more valuable than your safety -- combined with a low expectation of being caught is responsible for rampant disrespect for the rules of the road.

But some believe there is an answer to this growing problem. They advocate the use of automatic cameras that will catch red light runners in the act and result in their being fined. Some say that red light cameras aren't accurate or, worse yet, are a compromise of our Constitutional rights as Americans. But the California Board of Audits has completed its review of red light camera programs in California, finding the programs to be effective in reducing red light-running crashes.

"Statewide collision data indicates a 10 percent drop in accidents caused by motorists running red lights in areas with red light cameras compared to no change in the number of accidents in other areas," the report says. The report also notes that red light running crashes have increased 14 percent in San Diego since the camera program was suspended last year.

"Red light running is a reckless and preventable traffic safety menace and red light cameras provide a solution that works," said Monica Zech of the El Cajon Fire Department. "It's a matter of saving lives. The sooner we resume these lifesaving programs, the better."

Other studies of safety effectiveness in specific localities have also shown dramatic results. A recent audit of the San Diego program found that the number of crashes caused by motorists who run red lights dropped 44 percent at intersections with red light cameras. The red light camera program in Oxnard, California has resulted in a 46 percent reduction in injury causing crashes involving signal or sign violations.

"Aggressive driving is not a right, and red light cameras present no threat of any sort to safe drivers," said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running. "But, getting people to change their behavior requires consistent enforcement. With photo enforcement, we can reverse the trend toward this irresponsible behavior."

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini is always in a hurry, but he always manages to stop for red lights and for red flags waving.