December 2004

Worst engines ever?

Why is it that 99 times out of 100 the car in front of me that’s making all that smoke is a Volkswagen diesel? I know diesel engines tend to make smoke, but not like this. I’m talking about smoke so thick, barfing out of these cars when they accelerate, that it’s difficult to see through at all. Never mind trying to breathe; if I don’t shut off my fan and close my windows fast enough, it’s coughing/gasping/headache city.

A knowledgeable friend of mine refers to diesel engines as “Doctor Diesel’s Little Smokers” – a reference to the inventor, Rudolf Diesel. According to the reference material, diesel engines spew black smoke, which is mostly particulate carbon, when one or more of the following is true:

  • the air cleaner is plugged;
  • one or more of the fuel injectors is malfunctioning;
  • the engine timing is incorrect; or
  • one or more cylinders has poor compression (bad rings, valves or guides).

Okay, so the drivers of these vehicles need to get them serviced. But why mostly Volkswagens? Is it just that there are so many diesel Volkswagens on the road? Are VW owners less likely to service their vehicle? To notice the problem? To realize it can be fixed? Or are VW diesel engines just crap?

I really wonder if these people notice all that smoke. Maybe they look at the back of their car and wonder why they can’t read the license plate for all the soot. I know I’m not helping by shaking my fist at them as I floor it to get in front of them. They probably just think I’m nuts.

In my opinion, diesel cars are stupid. I understand the fuel economy issue when it comes to trucks and buses, but for a basic commuter car? Is the marginal cost saving worth giving the world emphysema? Folks, if you’re going to drive a diesel car, at least be aware of the smoke potential and find a mechanic that knows how to fix it. And use decent diesel fuel, please.

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Can you see me now?

I’m always amazed when I see someone driving with fogged-up windows. Driving is dangerous enough when you can see, don’t you think? I wonder if their heater works? Do they have several large dogs in the car? I’ll never know.

This happens much more often when it’s raining. When it rains, people roll up their windows (fair enough). The air inside the car becomes warmer than outside because there are warm bodies inside, and the already humid air gets even wetter. Foggy windows are the result.

How can we avoid this? Turn on your fan. It may seem like common sense, but the fact that I see people driving around in a fog seems to argue otherwise. Possibly these people simply aren’t familiar with their vehicle’s heating system. Perhaps they don’t realize that you can turn on the fan without turning up the heat. Can it be that they don’t even notice the problem?

I never have this problem. That’s because I leave my fan running on low all the time. When it’s raining, I make sure to shoot the air onto the windshield by turning on “defrost” mode. Keeping the air moving like this eliminates foggy windows. Simple, huh?

Oh, and you know that “recirculate” button/knob? Make sure that stays off. Recirculating the air will fog up your windows quicker than you can say, “Was that a red light?” You may not be familiar with this control as it’s often labeled obscurely. Look for a two position switch: one position shows an arrow coming into the car and the other shows air moving around in circles inside the car. You want the position where air comes into the car. The other position is only useful if it’s really cold outside and you want to warm up the air inside the car quickly. Just remember to switch it back when you start driving.

Okay, so I hear complaints from people who wear contacts: “Leaving the fan on all the time dries out my eyes!” Sorry, I haven’t got an answer for that.

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The “Big Picture?”

I took Driver’s Ed in about 1976, and I’ll never regret it. Run by the local Board of Education, the program was comprehensive and moderately tough. I know it helped to form my good driving habits. When I see bad driving behaviour in others, I often wonder if they would be better if they had been trained properly.

Forming part of the curriculum was a series of driving-related films. One was the classic “Signal 30,” which was designed to scare young drivers toward safe driving habits. It showed the gruesome results of several terrible auto accidents.

Another film, the title of which might have been “The Big Picture,” followed a guy in a convertible as he drove around a city. A narrator provided the play-by-play. One part in particular stuck in my mind: the driver is at a stop light and there is another car in front of him. The light turns green and the car in front starts moving. The narrator says, “Don’t pull out immediately; wait a few seconds to allow for some space between you and the car in front.”

When this film was made (judging from the cars, probably the 1950’s), the narrator might have been giving good advice. Certainly there were very few other cars on the road in that film. The reality, even in 1976, was that roads were already congested. Fast-forward to 2004, and if everyone took the narrator’s advice, nobody would ever get anywhere, and deaths by road rage would be common. The reality of 2004 is that the old guidelines for vehicle spacing are now useless. For example, there are several intersections in my home town where the advance green light lasts only a few seconds. If everyone moves smartly and keeps it tight, six to ten cars can get through. Following the advice of “The Big Picture” would allow one, perhaps two cars to get through. The result would be disastrous.

Lucky for us, cars are better than they were in the 50’s. Brakes are better, tires are better, handling is much better and we have anti-skid brakes. Cars are able to slow and stop safely in much less space. So reducing inter-vehicle spacing isn’t as dangerous as it would have been back then. But it’s not what we really want. We’d all love to go back to the traffic levels of the 50’s, right? Well, that’s not going to happen any time soon. Some day, fuel prices will reduce traffic to 1950’s levels again, and only the wealthy will drive. Until that happens, we have no alternative but to drive closer together than we would prefer.

What can we do to reduce the danger of driving close together? The first, and in many ways the most important rule is to pay attention. I’ll have more to say about that later. For now, just remember that when the car ahead of you is closer, you have less time to react if they stop suddenly. Second, when you’re close to the traffic in front of you, your vision can be significantly reduced. If you’re unlucky enough to be stuck behind an SUV, you might not be able to see much of anything. You’re increasingly dependent on the driver immediately in front of you for clues as to the traffic ahead. If he’s late on the brakes, your task is much more difficult. New cars are now all equipped with raised brake lights, which sometimes allow you to see what’s happening a couple of cars farther ahead. But you can’t count on that; you just have to be that much more aware.

Driving closer together also creates some particularly dangerous situations, which I’ll discuss in more detail next post.

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