Sep 4, 2010

What’s Your Technology Cutoff?




My M3's backup sensor is really cool. Or, at least it was, until last month when a droning beep showed up where the back-up sensing once was. Also cool were the tire pressure sensors. Pretty cool, until the constant flashing began, which is their way of telling me that they need service too. I'm too cheap to fix these optional features, but I cannot turn them off to ignore them either. Beep, beep, beep!  These inconvenient conveniences quickly loose there luster after that manufacturer's warranty expires. I personally think that these "nannies" will be the death of restoring vehicles, since not unlike your cell phone, they are upgraded and redesigned way too frequently. This recent frenzy of techno goodies leaves no time or interest to perfect or even repair them.

We've all got a target timeframe for when cars were truly ideal, before they got too complicated. Your father might say fuel injection marked the end of automotive simplicity. It's true, you could buy an old sports car and it would be a much "simpler" machine. But manual chokes, magneto ignitions and drum brakes are all dead and gone for a good reason. Let's be honest… hand starting a car is a bit much, but a self-parking Lexus LS460 is a tad excessive as well. Extremes are rarely the answer, but considering them can help us find clarity in our deep meditation over "the last sports car." Frankly, finding someone to tune your carbs is getting hard these days too. Sorry dad.
So, now you're thinking a new car is the answer… 500hp, shiny metallic blue with that voice-activated navigation hands-free thingy. But, even a brand new car will someday be old, so don't dismiss the issue just because you're buying a new Shelby GT500 with SYNC. You can't extend that warranty forever.

 Take every inch of wire in your car and mentally measure its length. Whose wire is it? Is it your wire, or wire from the original manufacturer, Car Toys, or Lucas? For every inch of that wire, you have the potential for hours of headache. Technology makes it easier for us to enjoy our cars out on the road, but it can really make life difficult when you're stranded on the side of that road. There is a progression of complexity associated with each new model year released and it's important to be honest about which technologies truly enhance your experience versus have the potential to greatly detract from it. Have you ever tried to change an O2 sensor on the side of the road? That's what I thought.

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Jensen's Interceptor was offered with ABS, AWD & traction control over 30 years ago. European character powered by American muscle, often a winning package. The AWD models can be spotted by the 2nd set of side vents.

Let's discuss the current major players in the technological new frontier:
ABS  (automatic breaking system) I love ABS since it's so rainy where I live.  Modern ABS can ensure that you brake as effectively as most serious racing professionals.  These systems vary in complexity and have been around longer than you'd think. But, even modern ABS can be limiting, such as when you intentionally want to slide or more importantly, when rolling backwards. Remember Porsche C4 guy? In his crash (discussed in a previous blog) his rear-engine car had a predisposition for spinning out backwards during high speed cornering. On the other hand, Corvair enthusiasts are in luck… no ABS to worry about.

If ABS proves to be an issue, there are several options. You can, of course, buy an older version of the car, or simply turn it off permanently or temporarily. Some Porsche drivers rewire the ABS with an emergency override toggle for use in a tailspin.   Check out the blogs… it's all been done. As newer systems get more interdependent, you'll find making modifications like that more difficult.   If it sounds dangerous to you, that means it probably is. Just a little disclaimer.

OBD-II This one represents my personal technology cutoff.  OBD-II, which stands for On Board Diagnostics II, was introduced in the mid '90s. Basically, it means your car monitors its own emissions by evaluating the performance of a multitude of systems from your catalytic converters to your gas cap. OBD-II can be problematic if you intend to modify your car since, for instance, your local emissions tester talks with OBD-II when you pull in for scheduled emission checks. My personal issue is that it offers little in performance enhancement yet offers a huge increase in a complex mix of hoses and sensors.

If OBD-II is a deal-breaker for you, stay away from late 90's era cars. Getting around OBD-II isn't easy, and technically it's illegal since it was mandated by the government.  Depending on the manufacturer of your car, a custom chip can be burned to override all or some components of OBD-II.  Don't expect it from Superchips or some other mass marketer… I'm using the word custom here.

Traction Control
Traction Control usually cuts throttle or spark when your wheels spin.  Older versions do this in a very abrupt manor (you will notice it happening, it might even be embarrasing).  Newer systems are a bit more seamless, giving you the impression you have traction even when you don't.  Even more significant systems redirect power to tires that are getting more traction (think fancier AWD systems).  Traction control could make burnouts obsolete. Now, a moment of silence please.

Many cars still offer a manual override for traction control.  It seems burn-outs are still the American way… yahoo! Prepare yourself to hit that override button EVERY time you start up, because it will reset automatically with each start-up. That can kind of ruin the spontaneity a bit. I've seen a few people rewire their dash warning lights so the "ABS OFF" light doesn't pester them.

Stability Control Some systems try to do it all. They mix ABS and traction control with a dash of suspension manipulation . They can be called various things like "Active handling" or "Dynamic Stability Control." Stability control can be so invasive and you may never know who's really driving so well, you or the car. These systems can work wonders for your ego, so try not to get too cocky. 

Dynamic stability control (or whatever catchy name they've given it) is often an option on new cars, so you could order your car without it. If a car evolved from a performance heritage, you'd hope handling assistance would not be essential anyway.  Turning them off often depends on the car… all aspects of the system may not really "shut down" when you throw that switch. So study up. 

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Mom's Thunderbird has been converted to a 12 volt electrical system.  Clearly an improvement over the now oddball 6 volt system that was original to these Fords.  Nobody thinks much about how many volts or what color your ground wire is anymore. But 6 volt electrics was a deal breaker for the builder of this car.

The Rest
Just kidding, we couldn't possible list them all. The big ones of the past 10 years are above so start there. If you're still stressing over fuel injection's reliability I'm afraid I can't help you. Get a noid light and get over it.

Know the nannies of your dream car and decide if you fully understand the risk/reward ratio of them. Imagining the convenience is easy, determining the liability is not. What you want or don't want is based on personal preference.  That wire we talked about might just stretch to the moon in your 2009 Audi S6 and be worth it to you. When my windows roll down for no reason, I sometimes wish for simpler wiring. So, decide how you feel about technology now and you can continue to fantasize with new found clarity.  

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