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Trust reputable mechanics with “the news”

Posted on 22, August, 2017

One of the most difficult jobs in the automotive repair business is calling the customer with the news. It’s the same for people in the medical, legal, accounting and even funeral fields.

We all have one thing in common: We give you news, and often it is not good news. We don’t make any of the news; it’s just the facts. But this is how we make our living, on the news.

I don't know how Bob the attorney (not his real name) did it to me, but every time I call him, I feel guilty for what his car needs. After doing this for 30 years, I am usually pretty good at not feeling bad about what a customer's car needs.

There is a joke in the business called the 3 Bs: "I didn't build it, buy it or break it."

I had a cup of coffee and worked up in my mind how I was going to call Bob with "the news." I reviewed his car’s records for the past five years and found that the BMW had been very good to him -- very few repairs, mostly routine maintenance.

I mustered the courage to call with the list of repairs. Slightly distressed, Bob asked for details. I went over the list and heard a big sigh. "How come every time I bring in my car," he asked, "you tell me how much money I need to spend on repairs?"

I was ready for him.

"Bob," I said, "I want you to know I don't make up what your car needs. I only investigate, prioritize, price the repairs and give you the news. I do make a profit on the news."

After a long pause, Bob said, "We are in the same business. As attorneys, we don't make the news, but give you the news, and we also make a profit on the news."

It's not uncommon for customers to think we have control over what's wrong with their cars. What a compliment! But I promise you, auto repair shops and dealerships have no control over your car's problems.

Often customers ask us how much it will cost to fix a problem before we have diagnosed it. If I don't know what's wrong, how can I tell you how much -- or even when it will be finished?

The sad part: These people will call around until they get the answer they want. Then they will go to that shop, only to be disappointed. No one can tell you the cost until they know what repairs are needed.

The important question for me to ask is, "How soon do you need the repairs to be done?"

In auto repair, there is good and there is bad. But, as in life, there also are many shades of gray. Just because an oil pan is leaking, you must first determine how much it is leaking.

I have had customers come in with a “leak,” and we did not recommend a repair. We reclassified it as “escaping molecules.”

A leak, in my mind, is oil that reaches the ground. A “seep” is oil starting to coat the area where it is leaking. I had to make up a new term, and I call it escaping molecules. This “leak” is so minor that under no circumstances should it be repaired.

The most common oversell in car repair is to fix so-called leaky struts and shock absorbers.

 

Priority list for action

A priority list is important for determining a car repair. I use a scale of 1 to 5:

1. Under no circumstance do we recommend repair. We classify the leak as “escaping molecules” of oil.

2. This is just the start of a problem; we still don't recommend the repair. For example, an oil pan is starting to seep, or tire wear indicates replacement after another 5,000 miles.

3. Time for preventive maintenance: A service that is due; tires are at minimum tread depth. You would be able to drive to Seattle without a problem, but work should be done now or soon.

4. Repairs need to be done very soon. The vehicle could be driven in town on short trips, but not taken on the open road. This includes worn-out tires and oil or coolant leaks.

5. This vehicle should not be driven. Brakes are worn out, or a water pump is about to break and throw the fan through the radiator.

 

It comes down to asking how soon repairs should be done: Now? Next month? Maybe even next year?

Also, keep in mind that a newer vehicle is very complex. The following quotes are from the New York Times:

“New high-end cars are among the most sophisticated machines on the planet, containing 100 million or more lines of code. Compare that with about 60 million lines of code in all of Facebook, or 50 million in the Large Hadron Collider.”

“Cars these days are reaching biological levels of complexity,” said Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

The sophistication of new cars brings numerous safety benefits. Just two examples are forward-collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking. But with new technology comes new risks — and new opportunities for malevolence.

The unfolding scandal at Volkswagen — in which 11 million vehicles were outfitted with software that gave false emissions results — showed how a carmaker could take advantage of complex systems to flout regulations.

Carmakers and consumers also are at risk. Dr. Patel, a computer science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, has worked with security researchers who have shown it is possible to disable a car’s brakes with an infected MP3 file inserted into a car’s CD player.

A  hacking demonstration by security researchers exposed how vulnerable new Jeep Cherokees can be. A series of software-related recalls has raised safety concerns and cost automakers millions of dollars.” (For more see http://nyti.ms/2vEBf3i)

Service professionals do not make the news. We just report the news. Don't shoot the messenger. Please be kind and understanding. 

New Car Safety

Posted on 14, July, 2017

The newer cars are packed with incredible safety equipment to help prevent crashes (note: crashes, not accidents; an accident is an opinion) and save lives when a crash occurs.

All newer cars have great safety equipment. These vehicles come with antilock brakes (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC) and air bags, including curtain air bags (SRS). ABS brakes reduce stopping distance and help to keep the vehicle in control by not allowing the wheels to lock up; ESC helps to keep the vehicle from skidding or sliding. Air bags and curtains help to save lives in the event of an accident.  Electronic stability control (ESC) and antilock brakes (ABS) both help to prevent crashes.

The newer vehicles have incredible features to help prevent crashes:

Forward-Collision Warning (FCW): This system lets you know with an audible noise and a warning light that a crash is inevitable. I have this on my 2014 Subaru and it has saved me from a crash at least once.

Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB): This system will put on your brakes for a driver to avoid a crash if the driver is not reacting in time.

The combination of Forward-Collision Warning (FCW) and Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) has shown a reduction of rear-end collisions by about 50 percent, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC):  This system, through the use of cameras, lasers and/or radar keeps a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front of you; it applies throttle and brakes as needed. ACC makes driving on freeways safer and reduces driver fatigue.

Blind-Spot Warning (BSW):  This system warns you with audio and lights that it is unsafe to charge lanes or merge because a vehicle is next to you. This helps to prevent crashes because of your “blind spot” in rear-view mirror.

Lane-Departure Warning (LDW) and Lane-Keeping Assist (LKA): LDW signals through audio, lights or vibrating the driver’s seat that you are not staying between the lines. On some vehicles, LKA will “pull” your vehicle back into your lane by applying one side of the brakes. Both LDW and LKA are disabled   when you use your turn signals. Note: By not using your turn signals to disable these systems, you can wear down your brakes on some vehicles.

Rear Cross-Traffic Warning (RCTW): This system will let you know if an object or vehicle is approaching while you’re backing up; it’s very useful in parking areas. 

My 2014 Subaru has forward collision, automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems. The chime goes off when I get close or go over a painted line without using my turn signal. I do need to be reminded to always use my turn signal and that I’m getting close to the painted line on the side of the road. The feature that I really like is the chime and message on the info panel that says, “Car in front has moved.” Yes, occasionally at a red light, I’m not paying attention that the traffic has started to move again and that I need to accelerate.

I really like the idea that this system can bring the vehicle to a stop quickly without me even touching the brakes. This system can prevent a crash and injury. In my 44 years of driving, I have never rear-ended a vehicle but it’s nice to know I now have a backup plan.

The adaptive cruise control I’m just OK with. This keeps a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you. In moderate traffic that is changing speeds, this system can accelerate to keep the distance the same as the vehicle in front; it starts to slow, then puts on the brakes as the vehicle in front is starting to speed up. The cruise “oscillates” your speed, speeding up and then applying the brakes. It’s very easy to explain why: the cameras are only watching the vehicle in front of you. Thanks to the ability of the human brain, we scan as far ahead as we can see and will let up off the throttle when we see the vehicles in front start to slow down. It is impossible for this system to anticipate the traffic that is in front of the vehicle that is in front of you. With light traffic, however, this system works very well.

All things considered, these systems work great. The ability to be able to prevent one crash is well worth the price.

Looking well into the future, when vehicles in close proximity can “talk” to each other, these issues won’t be a problem. Even now, the Tesla’s detection systems can look far ahead and stop more quickly, preventing the cruise control from “oscillating.”

While advanced safety equipment adds to the cost of a vehicle, these systems also help to reduce death and injury while you’re driving the vehicle – a very good investment.

George’s driving tips:

1. Always use your seat belt.

2. Check tire pressure at least monthly while tires are cold. Buy a tire pressure gauge to have in your vehicle. Recommended tire pressure is on the driver’s door post.

 

“Check engine” light on? Get it fixed soon

Posted on 17, May, 2017

The “check engine” or “service engine soon” light is a very important part of your vehicle’s performance, dependability and capability for lowering emissions.

Early vehicles required a tune-up every 5,000 to 15,000 miles. But tuning a vehicle made in the last 20 years is just not done anymore. It’s a “past” term.

Tuning a vehicle used to be like being the conductor of an orchestra, making sure that each and every instrument was played at the correct instant, right volume and length of time -- timing being critical. In the tuning of engines, it was making sure that every cylinder was doing its part, and that the spark of each spark plug was delivered at precisely the correct time with the proper intensity.

Checking all this on a scope – firing times, voltage potential, fuel delivery -- was a very difficult job. Few knew how to do it thoroughly.

The modern vehicle is an incredible piece of equipment, and is the most advanced technology that people own. Millions of lines of code are written; very advanced control units make all the “tuning” choices quickly and accurately for all driving and temperature conditions.

Now here’s the good and great news with a little bad news.

Modern cars deliver great performance and good fuel mileage with very little maintenance. (Spark plugs every 105,000 miles vs. every 5,000 in older vehicles). Modern vehicles are even able to tell you when something is not correct. If the feedback to the control unit is out of parameters, that is when the “check engine” light comes on. It’s like having an onboard mechanic (or doctor) always checking to see if everything is OK.

In 2016, the second most common repair for the light coming on also was the most expensive, a catalytic convertor. The average cost for that repair is around $1,200.

Now here is the golden nugget: The most common reason a catalytic convertor goes bad is human procrastination, not getting the “check engine” light fixed soon after it comes on. An improperly running engine puts off an imbalance of air/fuel mixture that overworks the catalytic convertor, causing it to fail.

According to CarMD, the most common “check engine” light repairs are around $250-$350.

Drive with it on too long, and you add another $1,200. Sounds like a no brainer to me; get it fixed soon.

Now to the next part of diagnosing and repairing “check engine” lights.

Often, we have a vehicle come in with multiple codes present. For the sake of integrity and cost, we repair only what we feel is the most common and prevalent code first, clear the codes and test-drive the vehicle. If the light does not come back on, we will release it to the customer and inform him or her that if the light comes back on, we will rescan for free and do more repairs if necessary. The reason for waiting is simple: One sensor or problem can affect other sensors into reading outside the parameters, causing the light to come on.

Reading, diagnosing and repairing the “check engine” light is the most challenging repair we have in our shops.  Having the enhanced (factory) scanner is imperative to doing the job properly. 

This is an area where getting it fixed soon is wise. The good news is that, dollar for dollar, a newer engine takes less maintenance and costs less than an older engine.

 

 When do you need brakes?

One of the concerns we have at our shops is people bringing in their vehicle for new brakes when it’s not necessary.

New brakes start out at 100 percent of what we call the lining or thickness of the brake pad (disc brakes) or brake shoe (drum brakes). Every time you use the brakes, you take off a very small percentage of this lining.

We estimate the life of your brakes in percentages. Even when lining is down to 20 percent, your brakes are working 100 percent. I perceive a fear: “Only 20 percent? Wow, I must get my brakes replaced.”

Not true. Even brakes with 10 percent left are 100 percent safe. Sometimes we even hear stories that your brakes MUST be replaced now or they will not work. This is very seldom true or almost never if it’s about brake lining. We do recommend replacing brake lining at 10 percent to err on safety. The moral of this story: Sometimes it’s a good idea to get a second opinion.

 

Tips

Never leave any living animals in a vehicle with the windows rolled up. On a hot sunny day, temperatures can rapidly increase to above 135 degrees. Leave the animals at home; it’s a matter of life and death for them.

When getting into a hot car after it has been sitting in the sun, roll down the windows for the first three minutes of driving. I have measured the temperature of a closed-up vehicle, and it was over 135 degrees. Rolling the windows down will expedite the cooling process.

 

Questions or comments are more than welcome. Email me at [email protected]

Rolling into the future

Posted on 18, April, 2017

The future of the automobile in the next few years is going to be very exciting, even incredible.  As electronics, computers and great designs get more refined and less expensive; they enter the automotive world more often. Electronic systems and motors are so dependable now, cars are chock full of them. Vehicles now operate with more than 100 million lines of software code, and that number is predicted to go to 300 million lines of code. (More than the Boeing 787 Dreamliner)

Some newer high-end cars have up to 100 electronic control units (ECU) with 25 to 200 microprocessors. To keep all these communications working, vehicles are using FlexRay, CAN Bus and LIN (motor control) systems.  Basic vehicles have about 1,350 wires for about 1.5 miles in length: high-end vehicles have up to 2,300 wires adding up to about 2.6 miles of wires.  Plus, modern vehicles can contain up to 100 electric motors and solenoids.  That’s a far cry from the 1960s cars.

We have all heard about the next generation of technologies, here are the five levels of automation and driver’s assistance that are a reality of new vehicle:.

  1. In the most basic stage of automation, the driver does all the work but the vehicle can take over one of two vital functions - steering or speed controls. An example would be adaptive cruise control, which keeps the vehicle in front of you at the same distance. The vehicle can accelerate or brake. The steering assist would happen if you change lanes without using your turn signal, for example; brakes on one side would apply, nudging you back into your lane.
  2. Partial automation:  The more advanced cars today can take over steering, acceleration and braking. Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Volvo are doing this now.
  3. Conditional automation: This car can drive itself but the driver needs to be behind the wheel to take over if intervention is needed, as if the car’s system gets confused. The newest Tesla has this.
  4. High Automation: This is where the driver lets the car take complete control. This level of sophistication is not currently available to consumers, but is being tested in some areas by Google, BMW, Bosch, GM, Benz, Nissan, Tesla, Ford and Uber. Lots of input and the roads need to be mapped to the inch with all the inputs we see such as lights, intersections, crosswalks etc.
  5. Full Automation: This would describe George Jetson’s vehicle if you remember that futuristic cartoon. All control are built in, and this kind of vehicle would have no steering wheel or pedals for driver input. I know of none of these in reality.

There are many advantages to the idea of fully or partially self-driving vehicles. About 94 percent of crashes occur because of driver’s errors, so these vehicles would be safer. Imagine if all vehicles could “talk” to each other; the chances of a crash would be eliminated. Traffic would flow smoother on freeway, and the “wave” of vehicles speeding up and slowing down could be eliminated. Driving faster and smoother would allow more vehicles to efficiently use the same road.

The downside would be the process of people learning to ‘trust” smart vehicles, but after a short time driving with these system in place, one’s fear would ease.

The cost of equipping these vehicles would be great but the real challenge would be “mapping the roads “so a vehicle would know where it was going if clues where taken away.  Knocked down or defaced stop signs, a snow covered highway or a whole multitude of other problems.

Want to lean more? Join me at City Club of Eugene forum, “The Age of Self-Driving Cars,” on Friday, May 12th at 975 High Street noon to 1 pm, get there early for the best seating. I’m going to be the first questioner.

I’m excited for the futures of vehicles. Repairing vehicles for over 42 years, the changes have been incredible.

 

Tips

1.         Lighten your key chain; if you have lots of keys or other stuff on your keychain, it put extra strain on your ignition lock tumblers. Remove these will extend the life of those tumbles saving you money and inconvenience.

2.         Driving a pre-2000 vehicle.  These are easy for thieves to still, more if it’s a 1990s Toyota or Honda. Keep your vehicle safe by installing a steering wheel lock like the Club. The Club is available from the Eugene Police Department for $12.50; it’s a cheap price for peace of mind.

3.         Buying a vehicle for the young adult who just turned 16? Newer vehicles have so many more safety features, both to stay out of a crash, ABS brakes, traction and stability controls. If a crash happens, advance air bags systems may make a huge difference. Buy newer and safer.

4.         If an animal jumps out in front of you, continue to look where you want to go, not at the animal. Where you look, the car will go. Apply brakes firmly but don’t swerve to avoid the animal, staying on the road is the safest thing to do. This simple tip will save you for injury or worse.

Question or comments? You can e-mail me at george1502@gmail.com. I will answer all questions promptly and use the best for this column

Hazards of self-diagnosis

Posted on 17, April, 2017

As vehicles get more complicated, new twists and more advanced multiplexing and technology only add to the challenges of diagnosing automotive problems. Yet in the world of auto repair, some customers don’t always perceive the valve in the cost of diagnosis. Throw in the fear of unknown and lack of trust into this equation, and some people start looking elsewhere for answers. The results most times are questionable.

Our shop technicians spend weekends and evening in classes to learn about the new technology. Newer vehicles are the most complex object that most people own and it is time consuming for technicians just to learn how to use new scanners and understand all of their capabilities.  In the past two weeks, four of techs spent Saturday and Sunday in classes.  

Recently, we had a customer bring in his European import with a check engine light on and running poorly. We hooked up a specialty scan tool, scanned the vehicle and found a P0301 code, misfire #1 cylinder. We called the customer asking for permission to spend time diagnosing the problem and what it would take to repair.

He called back and said he just wanted us to replace the fuel injector in the cylinder, saying that he had read it on the Internet. Very seldom do we find a fuel injector causing this problem but he said he was willing to take the risk. $245 later with a new injector, the vehicle still had the same problem. The owner then gave us permission to diagnose the real issue, which turned out to be two bad spark plug wires to that cylinder. (Yes, this vehicle has two spark plugs per cylinder). The customer was very understanding but we didn’t take out the injector because by that time it was used.

We had another customer request that we put a clutch switch in a Japanese import because the starter didn’t crank over on occasion even though we have never have replaced a clutch switch on that kind of car. It didn’t fix the problem.

Self-diagnosis also is a problem in the medical field, I have been told. But, I must admit that there is valuable information on the web, we use pay sites, $105 per month, which gives us direction. I repaired my motor home refrigerator from information in a blog about the problem I was having. But when it comes time to diagnose potentially complicated problems that could be expensive to repair, my advice is to trust the professional who is working on your vehicle.  Most times it will save time, money and aggravation.

How often to change oil?

One of the questions I come across as how often should you change your oil. This is a great question and I don’t have a black and white answer. There is no one size fits all answer other than to say oil should be changed frequently enough so that no engine damage is done.  

The low end is every 3,000, twice a year and there are some manufactures that do as high as 20,000 miles with no time recommendations!

There is one manufactory with high mileage recommended oil services that we have found an alarming amount of worn out engines at 80-90,000 miles.

 I will try and explain what I recommend is best. Cars before the year 2000 using conventional oil should have the oil changed every 3 to 5000 miles depending on how many miles you put on your vehicle per year. If you're putting 12 to 15,000 or higher miles on it a year every 5000 miles is fine but at least once a year in most cases.

If you have a car between 2000 and 2010 using conventional oil every 5000 to 7500 miles if you put over 10 to 12,000 miles per year but again, at least once a year.

If you have a car from 2010 to 2018 with synthetic oil and most newer cars take synthetic oil every 5 to 15,000 miles will work on oil services.

Now comes the exceptions is how do you drive and where the car is driven. Short in town mileage during the cold moist winters when the engine doesn't get warmed up is the most difficult on oil. Keep in mind, some of the combustion leaks past the rings in the engine fuel and moisture. This contaminates then mixes with the oil to create sludge and other harmful stuff in your oil. Twice a year or every 3,000 miles on this condition.

The 15,000 mile extreme on oil services would be if you did a lot of freeway driving, have a newer vehicle, use synthetic oil because you would be putting on 1 mile per minute at 60 miles an hour and keeping the engine warm or hot. 

There are many exceptions to these recommendations; the most common one is for folks with classic cars like myself. I have a 69 VW Karman Ghia.  It sits in storage most times, driven about 200-500 miles per year. I only drive it in the summer when not raining and at least 40 miles to get the oil hot. I change the oil every three to four years.

One thing is certain, In the long run, regular oil service is much more affordable than engine replacement. At the shops, we see a lot of wasted engines because of lack of oil services.