(This post originally appeared on 12/04/2008--KJ)
As the US auto industry teeters of the edge of oblivion, there's been no little debate over the mechanical quality of the American car, or lack thereof. I'm not sure of that quality myself. I've only driven used cars, usually junkers. Or are all used cars junkers? Are all junkers used? If there are junkers that are new, no wonder the industry's teetering.
One area of possible improvement, aside from the mechanical condition of the vehicle itself, are those devices meant to inform, and then warn, us of that aforementioned mechanical condition. I'm speaking of all those little lights on the dashboard that come on when you start the car, and that are only supposed to come on again if there's an emergency. Unless they're broke, in which case that's the emergency.
First up is the OIL light. Back when I first owned a car, and was relatively inexperienced about their strange ways, I assumed the OIL light came on when the car was about to run out of...oil. And so, I'd put in more oil. The red light would go off for a little bit, then go right back on. So I'd put in even more oil. The light was off for another little bit, than on again, and yet again I'd put in more oil...This went on until my car emitted so much black smoke it looked like a crematorium on wheels. I finally took it to the mechanic, and was told the OIL light doesn't come on when the car's actually running out of oil, but when there was something wrong with the engine (like it having too much oil. God knows what the original problem was.)
Now, I had an acquaintance who was similarly ignorant. In her case, the OIL light didn't go on, and she assumed the car didn't need oil. She kept on assuming her car didn't need oil, even after she heard a slight rattle. Maybe the doors weren't shut tight enough. Eventually, the rattle turned into a RATTLE. In fact, the car rattled even when it would no longer move. Then the SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE ENGINE light came on. The car was towed to the shop. The mechanic explained the problem. The car had run out of oil. But why, she asked, hadn't the oil light come on? Well, he explained, that's the whole purpose of the SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE ENGINE light.
If any members of Congress are reading this, next time those auto executives are seated before you, how about getting them to produce a car where the OIL light comes on when it's actually low on oil, and the SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE ENGINE light comes on when there's actually something wrong with the engine?!
Another problem with these lights are their timing. For instance, the BRAKE FAILING light usually comes on about 3.7 seconds before you're about to hit the back of an eighteen-wheeler. The NEEDS WATER light comes on about 8.4 seconds before you're about to pass out from smoke inhalation. And, of course, the BATTERY light comes on when the car's having trouble starting. Unless the car doesn't start at all. Because the battery's dead. So nothing works. Including the light that tells you the battery's dead.
One thing you don't have warning lights for, at least not in any of the junkers I've ever driven, are, well, lights. The ones outside the car, I mean. They do now chime to you when you've forgot to turn them off. But how about when they burn out? OK, you don't really need to be warned about headlights. You can see when they're not working. But what about the lights in back? The brake light? The tail light? When one of those burn out, there's no warning light whatsoever.
Unless it's the light on top of the police car in the rear view mirror.