Thursday, June 30, 2011

Archival Revival: Slapdashboard

(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.


  1. Great post,Kirk. Very amusing and timely, over time. When I was a young woman and first owned an old VW junker, I had this fantasy that the car sort of ran itself, that it never ever needed a service. In fact I had never heard of such a thing as cars needing a service until one of my early boyfriends pointed out to me that my car needed to help.

    To this day my youthful level of denial amazes me. Now I'm careful to get my cars serviced regularly. It helps to keep those lights from blinking or not blinking as the case may be.

  2. i've only ever owned one new car, which was promptly sideswiped within the first three months of my ownership. no lights came on.

    since i've owned mostly older cars, i decided at an early age that i needed to learn how to take care of them. i quickly found out that all i had to do was open the hood and i'd get covered in grease. i've done tuneups, changed the oil, rebuilt an engine and transmission (with help), and replaced a clutch. now that was fun. nothing like laying under a car with the bell housing on your chest, and you (that's me) not strong enough to lift it into place, hold it, and get the bolts back in.
    my tools disappeared in my divorce, and i no longer have the space to do any of the above. i miss it.

  3. Cars. The worst invention of the 20th century. That, and the industrialized killing of thousands, no, millions of people. It's the American Way.

  4. Oh, the damned things! I resent being shackled to cars and everything to do with them. I do not trust them once one has done me wrong. Even a simple flat tire will make me vote "off with its head!"

    True story: I was 50 years old and freshly divorced. I didn't know one had the oil changed in a car every X miles or so many months. Really didn't know it, I swear. Since we didn't burn up cars on a regular basis, I guess Ex took care of that. However, I assure you I am not stupid about everything there is.

  5. @Elisabeth--I have the same fantasy every time I put off a needed repair.

    @rraine--You know how to do all that stuff? I'll bring my car over later this afternoon...

    @Badger--Examining the pros and cons of the automobile is an essay in itself. For that matter, the pros and cons of the Industrial Revolution is an essay in itself. Personally, I have found owning a car a liberating experience, despite all the headaches. Just as I find using this library computer--a product of the Industrial Revolution, although people like to pretend otherwise--a liberating experience. Unfortunately, liberation comes with a price. Staring at this device might be burning my retinas. How about cell phones? I heard the average one generates more energy than the room-sized computers they had back in the 1950s. And he we hold those things up to our ears! And there's the effects on society. In our capitalistic system, any techological innovation immediately increases the gap between the haves and have-nots. Luxuries like cars and computers and cell phones eventually become necessities. To not have them means disenfrancising oneself. Yet you already have to be enfrancised to a degree to obtain them in the first place. Oops--I'm turning this response into an essay, aren't I?

    @Leslie--Like I said, everybody thinks that a light comes on to warn when you're about to run out of oil. Some cars have gauges that tells when you're running low on oil, much as they do with gasoline. But it's never been standard. I guess because it takes much longer to run out of oil than gas. And, of course, when we go to a gas station, there are no longer attendants who run out and say, "Check your oil?" We're now something like two generations removed from that!

  6. @Leslie part II--You belong to AAA? They'll fix your flat. Just make sure you have your cell phone with you, as there are no more pay phones...

  7. Once, I was driving my car down a busy street, and EVERY warning light that existed on the car came on at once. In fact, they cycled through my multi-display screen, because there was not enough dash space or warning lights to show me all of them at once. I calmly reached over and called the number of the mechanic sticket on my windshield, and pleasantly asked the guy who answered, WTF? He calmly suggested I pull over immediately and STOP DRIVING THE CAR. I'm stuck in traffic, and gently explain I am not going anywhere. He politely says TURN THE CAR OFF NOW. I do. He verifies I'm no longer operating the vehicle. A moment of silence. He says, quietly, try turning it back on now? I do. Purrs to life, pleasantly beeps hello, and all the warning lights disappear, along with the brick that had set itself upon my chest. Thank you, service man, for keeping me from COMPLETELY LOSING IT.

  8. @Cram Cake--Sounds like your dashboard was trying to screw with your head.

  9. Not to plug my own blog in your blog, but there are some funny dash pictures in this one I wrote in the winter:

  10. I do keep AAA, always. You're right. They're good for the flat tire so one can move on. The issue is that I never trust the car again, though AAA remains high in my esteem.

    True story: once in over-busy lifestyle, I locked the sleeping baby in the car. Two Lemon Grove sheriffs propped me up for an hour while we waited for AAA to arrive. The baby never woke up throughout, though I likely shaved 10 years off of my life expectancy.

    LOVE your essay response about luxuries that become necessities. I resent being whored to devices. No, really! But I learn how to operate them just as efficiently as the next guy.

  11. @Cram Cakes--Just checked out that post and left a comment.

    I covet your dashboard.


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