How Does a Turbo Work?

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Source | Dave_7/Flickr

Auto manufacturers have almost exclusively used turbochargers in sports cars or race cars in the last couple of decades. Considering their main purpose is to provide a large boost in power, that does make a lot of sense. Now that automakers need to improve the fuel economy in vehicles across their lineups, they’ve started using turbocharged engines in daily drivers too.

This rise in popularity is mainly because turbochargers make engines work more efficiently. And when engines don’t have to work as hard, they use less fuel. Fuel-cost savings are among the top benefits of a turbocharger, along with the power output surge it provides.

Despite more widespread use of turbochargers in recent years, there are still a lot of questions about what they do and how a turbo works. We’re going to take a look at the technology behind turbochargers. We’ll also look at how they’ve evolved since they first appeared in a production vehicle back in 1962.

What is a turbo and how does a turbo work?

To understand how a turbo works, you first need to know its components and what each of them does. The two fundamental parts are a compressor and a turbine, forming what is essentially an air pump. The compressor consists of a wheel, a housing, and a diffuser. The turbine, for its part, has a wheel and a housing.

The main goal of a turbocharger is to boost the power output of an engine, without having to increase the engine’s size. Here’s how a turbo provides power:

  1. It takes in exhaust gasses from the engine through its turbine wheel.
  2. This process causes the turbine wheel to start spinning. A shaft connects the turbine wheel to the compressor wheel, causing it to rotate as well.
  3. Once the compressor wheel begins to spin, it takes in ambient air and compresses it.
  4. From there, it sends the compressed air through the compressor housing over to the chambers of the engine.
  5. The compressed air enters the engine’s combustion chambers, providing the engine with more power and torque.

Nowadays, automakers factory-install or offer as aftermarket parts a few different types of turbos. Beyond the basic type of turbo configuration—the single turbo—there are parallel twin turbo configurations, sequential turbos, and quad turbos.

1962 Oldsmobile Cutlass/F85

1962 Oldsmobile Cutlass/F85, Source | Greg Gjerdingen

From the ’62 Oldsmobile Cutlass and Chevrolet Corvair, to Ford’s EcoBoost

The first production car to feature a turbocharged engine was the 1962 Oldsmobile Cutlass. This classic car was powered by a 3.5-liter aluminum V8 engine, with a power output of 215 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. That same year, Chevrolet rolled out a turbocharged Corvair. Both became trendsetters for turbocharged cars. In 1975, Porsche introduced its first turbocharged model: the 911 Turbo, helping make the technology famous around the globe.

For the past few years most global automakers launched models that use a turbocharged engine, with Ford’s EcoBoost technology arguably leading the way. Ford includes EcoBoost engines across most of its lineup, including the F-150, sports cars, family sedans, and SUVs. Its main turbo-engine competitors include Audi, Chevrolet, and Volvo. The market should continue to grow—many European and US automakers say they plan to invest in this technology for years to come. (Japanese manufacturers have focused more on hybrids and electric vehicles.)

Lower fuel consumption, higher power output—but at a cost

Like with most vehicle technologies, turbochargers have their drawbacks. To create power, the turbocharger supplies the engine with more condensed air by using the exhaust energy from the engine, which would otherwise be wasted. Turbocharged engines deliver the same amount of power as non-turbocharged engines twice their size. Because of that, automakers don’t have to install larger engines.

But there’s a reason why turbos have yet to become a staple in every single car. Turbocharged engines are more expensive to build than their naturally aspirated counterparts. Creating an efficient and durable turbo is a complicated engineering process. That’s why they were usually found in luxury, high-performance cars. Only recently have cost reductions helped get them into more mainstream models.

Aside from high production costs, there are also a couple of downsides to turbos. One of the biggest drawbacks from a consumer perspective is turbo lag. Turbo lag is the time it takes for a turbocharger to start supplying the engine with an increased pressure and, consequently, a power boost. A turbocharger only provides a boost after it reaches a certain RPM threshold. Turbo lag is the time it takes an engine to reach that threshold after idling, or from a low speed.

Reaching the threshold for a power boost can lead to another downside of using a turbocharger. Once it reaches the threshold, the turbo speedily delivers an increase in power. That power boost can make the car difficult to control, which makes turbos potentially dangerous if a driver doesn’t know what to expect.

Sticking around

Even with the pitfalls, the consensus in the automotive industry seems to be that turbos are here to stay, and they’ll continue to get more popular in the near future. Automakers face strict fuel economy standards in many markets around the globe, prompting them to invest in fuel-saving technologies like turbochargers. Good thing we think they’re pretty fun.

What about you? Are you a fan of turbos? Share your tips and experience in the comments.

 

How Does a Code Reader Work?

car speedometer with the check engine light illuminated

Source | Chris Isherwood/Flickr

When that “check engine” light comes on, many drivers start thinking about their bank accounts. They wonder if they need to immediately pull over and have it towed for an expensive repair, or if the issue is something minor that can wait a few days. The light sure gets your attention, even if you’re an expert DIYer. But what does it mean?

There’s a way to find out. Code readers are affordable DIY tools that provide valuable information about the state of your vehicle and, potentially, a solution to the problem.

Wait, why even have computers in cars?

Story time. Volkswagen and Bosch created the first electronic fuel injection system in 1968, but computer controls didn’t really catch on in the US until the late 1970s. With increasingly strict emissions standards, plus a couple of gas shortages, the new engine control unit (ECU) would reduce the car’s emissions and improve fuel economy. These initial computers were connected to just a few sensors. They could read the incoming data, compare that info against tables stored in permanent memory, and adjust the controls as needed for the ideal result.

It worked. Air pollution improved, fuel economy increased, and basic ECUs picked up more and more sensors. This was the first era of on-board diagnostics computers, later called OBD1.

Problems popped up when you tried to take your fancy new 1980 Ford Escort LX to your favorite local mechanics. They didn’t have the tools to diagnose your new ride, because they didn’t want to buy a $5,000 diagnostic tool just for Fords. See, each manufacturer built computers according to their own specifications, so a Ford diagnostic tool wasn’t going to work on a Dodge, and small shops couldn’t afford to buy a tool to service every brand.

Fortunately, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) got together with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to come up with industry-standardized diagnostics and connectors. Starting Jan. 1, 1996, OBDII became standard.

OBD-II engine code reader

OBDII Code Reader, Source | Flickr

How a code reader works

When an automotive sensor fails, its specific outputs change. For example, let’s say the air intake temperature sensor gets corroded over time and eventually fails to work. The ECU is looking for a specific signal range from that sensor, and will throw up a “check engine” light and store a code “P0113″ or similar if that signal fails to register to the ECU. When the ECU doesn’t receive a signal within normal operating tolerances, the ECU illuminates the “check engine” light to get your attention. In short, the “check engine” light alerts you to a problem, and the stored code tells you what the problem is.

The code reader connects to your 16-pin OBDII port, usually located under the steering column. The code reader and ECU use the same programming language and are able to communicate, so the reader understands that “P0113″ is a failed air intake temperature sensor and puts this on the display screen. With this knowledge you can take a quick trip to the auto-parts store and replace the sensor. If the code is still stored after replacement and starting the engine, you can manually clear the error code by setting the code reader to erase it from memory.


Pro Tip: To help you diagnose a vehicle problem, Advance offers free code reading at most store locations (see store for details).


How code readers help you

With industry-standard connection and software, the formerly expensive mechanic’s equipment quickly became affordable for the average motorist. The simplest and cheapest readers will only display the error code. Something like “P0300″ will show in the display window. Then it’s up to you and Google to decode it—in this case a misfire not tied to any specific cylinder.

Going up slightly in price, more advanced code readers usually have large display screens. These readers can display the error in plain language, or offer the ability to read and reset ABS brake codes or the SRS airbag light. Instead of just the displayed error code, you might see something like “oxygen sensor 1, bank 1.” And instead of spending time digging through Google’s search results, you can go buy the oxygen sensor and install it. This saves you time and hassle, and probably money, too. You can skip the dealership service bay and the aggressive upsell on services.

While more complex, these advanced code readers are still easy to use. If you can download and install a smartphone app, you have the technical skill level to use a code reader. People sometimes get intimidated by any product with the word “diagnostics” in the name, but this might be the easiest tool you can use on a vehicle. Literally, you just plug it in.

Skirting the system

Now, don’t just buy a code reader to clear your check engine light so you can pass the emissions test or safety inspection. It doesn’t work like that. Inspections technicians have advanced code readers that can detect when there is still an issue with your vehicle. Remember, turning out the light doesn’t make the issue go away. The fuel injector or oxygen sensor that triggered the check engine light is still malfunctioning, even if you temporarily cleared the code. The code-erase function should be used after the repair to validate that the issue is fixed.

Have any advice on using a code reader? Let others know in the comments below.

Intake Manifolds: Born To Rev

Intake manifold
Intake manifolds
are a fascinating part of the internal combustion engine. Their design has a great deal of influence on how the engine performs. The simplest change can drastically alter how the engine feels under power.

Your engine in its most basic form is an air pump. As the piston moves down the cylinder during the intake stroke, it’s pulling a fuel/air mixture through the intake valve. Above that, your fuel system (unless your car has direct injection) is delivering fuel through the open intake valve. The oxygen supply needed for combustion is coming in at the same time, via the intake manifold.

And why should you know this? Because the design of the intake manifold has a significant effect on the output of your engine.

The Long and Short of It

Back in the days of prohibition, moonshiners started modifying their cars with the purpose of getting away from the law. One of the quickest ways to get more power out of a car is to allow the engine to breathe more efficiently. If an air intake is like your nose, then the intake manifold is like a pair of lungs. You can sniff all you want, but if your lungs aren’t up to the task of taking on that air, you’re going to have trouble.

Intake manifolds are designed to evenly distribute air to each cylinder of the engine. The more cylinders an engine has, the more complex this becomes. Older vehicles were pretty uniform in the way their manifolds were designed. Each cylinder has its own dedicated “runner” that delivers the air to the cylinder through the intake valve(s).

The tricky thing is, the length and diameter of the intake runners affect where you get your power. If your intake runners have a larger diameter, you’ll have higher horsepower, while a smaller diameter has less power but will allow you to reach that peak power more quickly. Longer runners are good for low-end power, while short ones are best for when you need the power in the upper registers of your power band. This is where modern technology comes in handy.

Power Where You Want It

Engine bayOlder cars had to find the happy median with their intake manifold design to perform the best for their typical scenario of use. Many new cars can have the best of both worlds — or at least a broader range of the two. Commonly called the DISA valve, a butterfly valve is built in to their intake manifolds to adjust the length of the intake runners depending on the throttle position. This ingenious little device is quite common on BMWs, for example. It helps bring a wider range of performance to a vehicle without having to swap the intake manifold out for specific power needs.

If you’re modifying an older car and you want more power, you’ll have to stick to the more traditional method. Depending on where you want your power, you’ll want a specifically designed manifold for that purpose. Take this Edelbrock Performer intake for example. You’ll see that in the product description, it’s designed to run at idle to a 5500 RPM limit and will provide a broad torque curve with excellent throttle response and mid-range power. This particular setup would be good for a muscle-car owner who is looking for good power on the street. Good throttle response and mid-range power is what you want if your goal is to be the stoplight drag king. This Edelbrock Performer RPM intake, in contrast, is built with high-end power in mind and would be better suited for situations in which top speed is the end goal.

When To Replace Your Manifold

You may not be looking to soup up your daily driver, but knowing how your car works is always a benefit to a car owner and can save time and money. Most intake manifolds on late-model cars are made of plastic. Over time they may crack, warp, or have a bad gasket. Typical symptoms of a faulty intake manifold would be hard starting, stumbling during acceleration, and often a “check engine” light. A leak in the intake manifold would likely set off a code that your engine is running too lean or getting too much air. A lean running engine could lead to premature detonation in the cylinder, which leads to major damage of the engine.

Have you found the perfect setup for your car? Let us know what you’re running in the comments below!

The Weird World of Intake Manifolds

 

Intake manifolds are often a hot rodder’s upgrade part but are otherwise mostly ignored. Every minivan on the road has an intake manifold feeding an air and fuel mixture to the cylinder heads, so they don’t have the sexy and complex reputation of a turbocharger. Still, throughout the history of internal combustion, there have been several intake manifolds that left us scratching our heads. Here are a few of the weirdest.

Source | Andy Jensen

If You Can’t Dodge It, Ram It

This one causes a puppy-head-tilt reaction in everyone who sees it for the first time. The Chrysler B-block was a standard and unexciting people-moving engine by 1960 until it was topped by the unique cross-ram manifold. The dual four-barrel carbs sit way out over the exhaust manifolds and run the air charge through a gigantic, 30-inch runner to the opposite side intake port. Yup, the driver’s side feeds the passenger side cylinders, and vice versa. Chrysler rated the 361 cross ram at 310 horsepower, which wasn’t bad considering the muscle-car wars hadn’t really started yet. While it wasn’t a drag strip warrior due to losing power in higher RPMs, the cross-ram-equipped car had an impressive 435 lb-ft of torque down low, thanks to the extremely long runners.

Defying Gravity

What do you do when the traditional intake manifold world gets boring? Turn it upside down — or in this case, sideways. Sidedraft carbs were needed due to packaging constraints on cars with average-size engines in a small engine bay, like the Jaguar XK120 and Datsun 240Z. While North America was familiar with a standard Holley sitting directly on the manifold, the sidedraft style meant the Weber or SU carbs were mounted 90 degrees sideways, feeding a vertically mounted intake manifold. It’s easy to assume that gravity pulls fuel from the carb bowl into the manifold, which means sidedrafts shouldn’t work. Fortunately, the Venturi effect, which draws the air and gas mixture into the engine, is far more influential than gravity, meaning the intake manifold works just the same as if it were installed on top of the engine. If you want really weird-looking, there’s aftermarket kits to put sidedrafts on a rotary.

Truck Engine in a Sports Car

Remember the ’80s? No? Well, lucky you. The rest of us suffered for a bit while the manufacturers tried to figure out how to balance horsepower with emissions. GM’s solution was electronic-fuel injection with the tuned port intake (TPI) manifold. The distinctive long curved runners connecting the plenum to the lower manifold are a source of the engine’s torque, with a tuned length that takes advantage of pulses in the air charge at low and mid RPM. Right as the pulse of air is about to slam into the closed intake valve, it opens, sending a blast of slightly compressed air into the chamber. While only generating 245 horsepower, the TPI could make an impressive-for-the-time, 345 lb-ft of torque. If that isn’t oddball enough for you, the ’85 to ’88 V8s had nine fuel injectors.

Looks Like a Bad Day at the Factory

A transverse (sideways) mounted intake manifold make sense on a transverse mounted engine, like the modern Toyota Corolla. The cylinders are in a line between the wheel wells, and the intake manifold lines up with the cylinders left to right. Things get quite a bit more confusing when looking at the engine bay of the Infiniti Q45. The Nissan VH series engines were longitudinal (front to back) V8s driving the rear wheels but topped by a spider-like intake manifold sitting sideways as if it were front wheel drive. The reasoning behind the strange layout is unclear, but it was probably for packaging or emissions. This reminds us that the orientation of the intake manifold does not always determine the drive wheels. For further proof, look to the ’90s Acura Legend. While the engine drives the front wheels, the longitudinally mounted manifold suggests the rear wheels are driven. Oddly, this layout in a modern Japanese EFI sedan recalls the classic Oldsmobile Toronado.

While these oddities are no longer in production (excluding some as aftermarket upgrades), they solved an engineering dilemma of their times.

If you know of any other unusual intake manifolds that should be on this list, make sure to let us know in the comments.

Our Forefixers: The Winter Innovators

Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stop today’s drivers from getting somewhere sunny and bright! Nope, we’re not referring to the delivery route of your friendly neighborhood USPS worker. We’re talking about cold-weather-fighting automotive inventions like winter tires and all-wheel drive, which let motorists go wherever they want regardless of the season.

But where did these inventions come from? Here are the origin stories of some of winter’s most essential features.

Tires

Source | Imthaz Ahamed/Unsplash

Winter Tires

Picture this: it’s a frosty winter’s night in Finland in 1934, and horse-drawn carts are still a common sight. The cars of the time are nowhere near as well-built as today’s, and slush and ice on the roads only make being behind the wheel even scarier.

Enter Nokian, who recognized the need for a tire suited to frozen climates. The company first designed cold-resistant rubber for delivery trucks that had no choice but to drive on the white stuff. The tires featured a never-before-seen type of asymmetrical tread pattern that went sideways to bite into snow. Two years later, it was adapted for passenger vehicles, allowing all drivers to keep cool in slippery situations.

Ferdinand Porsche

Ferdinand Porsche

 

All-Wheel Drive

He created the Volkswagen Beetle, the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, as well as the first mid-engine, rear-wheel drive race car—so, we have to ask, was there anything Ferdinand Porsche couldn’t do?

Apparently not! While working for pioneering car manufacturer Jacob Lohner & Co., Porsche also invented the first automobile powered by all four wheels. Did we forget to tell you that the aforementioned hybrid had individual electric hub motors on each wheel, driven by an onboard engine-powered generator? This unique model was debuted at the Paris Auto Salon in 1900. Now, Porsche offers all-wheel drive on everything from Cayennes to 911s.

Saab

Source | Saab

Heated Seats

Keeping your tush toasty in the middle of February is as easy as flicking a switch, thanks to heated seats. This wasn’t the case until 1972, when the feature was made standard on a few of the models, like the 95, 96, and 99 sedans, offered by now sadly defunct Swedish automaker Saab. (According to one legend, the innovation came about in an attempt to alleviate a Saab executive’s back pain.) Unfortunately for the owners of those first vehicles, sitting in the hot seat wasn’t optional, because the function turned on automatically when the interior dipped below a certain predetermined temperature whether they liked it or not.

Do you know of any forefixers who changed the way we drive in winter? Share what you know below.

Why Do Car Batteries Die in Winter?

Few things are more frustrating than climbing into a cold, snow-covered car or truck only to hear the dreaded “click-click” of a dead battery. It happens to the best of us. But why does a car battery’s life seem to end more frequently in winter? Read on for the reason why.

Car battery

Source | Flickr

The inner life of your vehicle’s battery

First, a quick refresher on the science happening inside a car battery. Lead acid batteries are the most common car batteries because they’re inexpensive and fairly dependable. They’re made of a plastic case that houses a series of lead plates immersed in a pool of electrolyte—a mix of water and sulfuric acid. Each pair of plates makes up one “cell.” When fully charged, each cell in a lead acid battery produces 2.1 volts. So, a 12-volt battery consists of six cells.

The lead acid battery doesn’t produce a charge, but receives and stores an initial charge through a chemical reaction between the cell’s lead plates and the electrolyte. But as the chemical reaction occurs, the positive and negative lead plates are slowly coated with lead sulfate. This process is known as sulfation, and it reduces your battery’s ability to hold a full charge.

To complicate matters, lead acid batteries experience self-discharge, a natural loss of charge over time. Left too long without a fresh charge, a battery can discharge beyond recovery.

So why do batteries fail in winter?

Extreme heat or cold can increase your battery’s rate of discharge, making winter a triple-threat to your battery. All that exposure to summer’s heat evaporates the water in the electrolyte, increasing sulfation. Then winter rolls around, and freezing temperatures slow the chemical reactions occurring inside a lead acid battery, further reducing your battery’s ability to perform.

At the same time, a cold engine and sluggish oil demand more power, while power-hungry features like heat and defrost place more demand on your battery. Although lead acid batteries last an average of four years, they can fail earlier under the right (or wrong) conditions.

Signs of a failing battery

Your battery won’t always warn you before it fails, but here are common signs to watch for:

    • Headlights dim yellow instead of white
    • Dashboard battery warning light is on
    • Electronic accessories fail
    • Engine cranks more slowly
    • Dome lights dim
    • Car horn sounds unusual
    • Battery case swollen or cracked
    • Smell of sulfur or rotten eggs
    • Battery is more than three years old

The best way to find out if it’s time to replace your car battery is to have your battery tested.

Have you had to deal with a dead battery in winter? Share your experience in the comments.

Car Shocks: How They’ve Gotten Better Over the Years

“Float like a Cadillac, sting like a bimmer.” That may not have been the original phrase, coined by Muhammad Ali, but automotive enthusiasts like the pun. Cadillacs are luxurious to ride in, and BMWs inspire confidence when the roads get twisty. All thanks to the modern suspension system.

Cars have come a long way over the past century or so, especially when it comes to how they handle. Let’s take a look at just how far.

car shocks

Source: theoldmotor.com

Early Shock Absorbers

Have you ever heard the phrase “This thing rides like a buckboard?” Similar to many of today’s pickup trucks, early suspension setups utilized leaf springs, several layers of steel sheets that are shackled together to create a spring. Leaf springs are still used in a lot of off-road or heavy-duty applications because of their rugged nature and ability to suspend heavy loads. A smooth ride? It’s not their strong suit.

The first shock absorbers were much different than what you’ll find on your car today. While today’s units are tubular in design and house a piston that moves through hydraulic fluid, the first shock absorbers were merely a lever with rubber pads between the frame and the leaf spring. The first cars to employ this setup were said to provide a “magnificent” ride — try one today and your kidneys would likely disagree.

Today’s Shock Absorbers

Depending on what kind of car you drive, you’ve either got shock absorbers or struts. Struts are basically the same thing as shocks but are part of a different setup and are generally used on front-wheel-drive cars. The MacPherson Strut, named after the General Motors engineer who invented them, are housed inside a coil spring and attached to the upper control arm of a front-wheel-drive car. In the rear, they’re also inside a coil spring and are bolted to the strut tower housing. Coil springs have been around since before 1800 and didn’t require lubrication like leaf springs did (to avoid getting squeaky), but they weren’t combined with a shock absorber inside the spring until MacPherson gave it a try.

The basic principle of the shock absorber has remained the same for decades. Monroe, a major manufacturer of shock absorbers, produced the first OE shocks in the 1930s. Today’s most advanced shocks utilize the same theory but use modern technology to enhance their versatility.

Typically, the piston within the shock housing or tube has small holes or passages in it that the oil is forced through as the piston moves through the tube. This dampens the up-and-down motion of the tires as you go over the road. The primary goal of the shock is to prevent your tire from leaving the ground. If it doesn’t do that, the ride gets really rough and the car becomes hard to control. Many of today’s shocks use multiple valves, electronics, or even magnetism to adjust how they behave over certain terrain or driver preferences. Does your car have sport mode? Pressing that button on a car that has adjustable suspension changes the way the valves in the shock respond, increasing the firmness of the ride and improving your cornering ability and control.

Some of the first cars to use electronics in how their suspension responded had sensors in the front bumper that would send a signal to adjust the ride from firm, medium, or soft, depending on road conditions. Today’s most recent innovation in shock technology can be found in the new 2017 Ford Flex. Similar to the early method, the Flex has sensors in the front area of the car that can react to poor road conditions like the dreaded pothole. The sensor will actually send a signal to the computer and lift the strut just enough to lift the tire off the ground, essentially passing over the pothole without spilling your morning coffee.

Whether you want to “float like a Cadillac” or “sting like a Bimmer,” many of today’s cars can serve up both with the push of a button, unless your shocks have gone bad. Most shock absorber manufacturers recommend replacing them at 50,000-mile intervals.

 

Have you had experience with some of the older shocks? Tell us about it in the comments!

The Future Is Now: Helpful Car Diagnostic Apps

Mechanic using laptop photoEver since 1996, On-Board Diagnostics generation two (OBD-II) has required all new vehicles manufactured in the United States to have self-diagnostic and reporting capabilities. This gives you access to the status of your vehicles’ systems in real time using a standardized series of diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs).

This is accomplished through a 16-pin connector mounted near the instrument panel that provides four-digit codes for four main areas: P for powertrain; U for computer; C for chassis; and B for body.

Car apps 1Diagnostic scanning tools make DIYing it so much easier – and here are apps that you can access from your smart phone to help you do diagnostics right. Use the app on the road, order the appropriate car parts and you’re off and running on your latest car repair.

Actron U-Scan and more

With U-Scan from Actron, you can discover the cause of the check engine light by plugging a device in your vehicle’s adapter and reading the relevant code definitions. With the QuickCheck™ feature, you can use your Android or Apple device to read the codes appearing on your vehicle, and then, when appropriate, erase them to turn off the check engine light. You can also monitor your emissions status, and maintain a log of vehicle tests and procedures and more.

Advanced features include:

  • Powertrain enhanced data ($7.99 per vehicle or $15.99 for all these manufacturers for most vehicles that are 1996 or newer: GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota): Get access to Powertrain codes and definitions. U-Scan’s freeze frame data describes the vehicle’s conditions at the time when the trouble code first appeared. More than 300 sensor/data items are available.
  • ABS codes and definitions ($5.99 per vehicle or $29.99 for all listed manufacturers): Discover the likely causes of ABS warning lights.
  • CodeConnect® ($12.99 per vehicle or $39.99 for all vehicles): More than 4.3 million fixes are available in this database, verified by ASE-certified technicians. Note: You must first purchase the powertrain enhanced data and/or ABS codes and definitions before buying and using CodeConnect.
  • Airbag codes and definitions ($7.99 per vehicle or $39.99 for list manufacturers): Access the most likely causes of airbag warning lights.

It never hurts to compare. In The 6 Best On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) Apps for your Car, you can get more information on other similar apps.

What’s next: car key apps?

In June 2015, the New York Times published an article titled The Future of Car Keys? Smartphone Apps, Maybe, predicting how the car key and fob might evolve. Right now, if you own a Tesla, BMW, General Motors or Volvo, you might already own a key fob that allows you to start the engine, unlock doors, turn on heat and monitor the battery remotely. With the PEPS keys (passive entry, passive start), you don’t even need to remove the fob from your pocket. Its very nearness to the car allows you to unlock doors with a touch, and to start the car with a button push.Car apps diagram

What’s next?

Experts don’t believe that a smartphone app will replace a key, not when a slow data network or dead phone battery would keep you out of your car. Plus, who wants to pay a monthly data subscription plan, which would likely be part of the deal, if you only got what a car fob previously provided? Especially with the complications provided by slow data networks and dead phone batteries? What would be the point?

Hakan Kostepen, the executive director for product planning strategy for Panasonic Automotive Systems, says that keys will eventually carry driver preferences, such as seating positions and favorite audio choices, even when you’re in a rental car. A smartphone app could work with the key data to recommend places to visit, eat and so forth, based on your known preferences.

Finally, Audi and Volvo are experimenting with groceries and packages being delivered to car trunks and the owner being notified. Car key usage would be authorized for a one-time use.

Editor’s note: What apps do you like? Which ones do you plan to try next? Leave us a comment below.

 

Does the Type of Gasoline You Use Really Matter?

gasoline pump photo

Gassing up isn’t as simple as it used to be. The following questions and answers can help clear up some of the confusion around choosing the right gas for your vehicle.

Is there a difference between the gas at “name brand” stations—Exxon, Mobil, Shell—versus the “grocery store gas” or other discount stations?

In the early days, gas was dispensed from a pump with a glass globe on top so motorists could check the “quality” of the product. Gas quality today, however, is regulated and legally required to contain certain levels of detergents, octane, ethanol, and other ingredients. While “name brand” gas might contain more engine-cleaning detergents, there’s a good chance that the gas found at “off-brand” stations was actually produced by the same name-brand manufacturers you know. So, buy gas where it’s convenient for you and easiest on your wallet and comfort level.

Do I need to spend more money on a higher grade fuel?

There are generally three grades of unleaded gasoline available at nearly all U.S. gas stations. The price per gallon rises in tandem with the fuel grade. Depending on what you drive, these grades—or octane ratings—matter. For starters, high-performance engines need higher octane fuel. That’s because your engine was designed to generate higher compression within the cylinder and increased power. Higher pressure and lower octane aren’t a good match. High-performance engines that require a higher-octane fuel and don’t get it will deliver decreased power and performance. To help determine what octane rating your vehicle needs, start by looking in the owner’s manual.

Some drivers also determine whether they need a higher octane fuel through experimentation. If the vehicle runs great on 87 with no knocking, pinging, or performance issues, and choosing the lower grade fuel doesn’t run afoul of any warranty requirements or specific manufacturer guidelines, why spend the extra money on a higher octane fuel?

If the vehicle manufacturer doesn’t specify high octane and there aren’t any performance issues, save some money by sticking with a lower octane fuel.

Is the gas I use causing the engine to knock?

First, it’s important to understand why your engine is knocking, and why it’s a concern. As the octane rating goes up, so too does the gasoline’s ability to withstand compression without spontaneously detonating or igniting. In gasoline engines, the air/fuel mixture inside the cylinder is supposed to ignite only when a small flame is created by the spark plug. As that small flame gradually grows and spreads out within the cylinder, the air/fuel mixture should ignite in one detonation. Problems arise, mainly in the form of an audible “knock,” when more than one detonation occurs within the cylinder. That knocking can be more than just an annoyance. It robs your engine of power and can destroy it quickly or over time. Higher octane fuels better withstand the increased pressure or compression, preventing spontaneous detonation.

But gasoline isn’t the only thing that can cause engine knocking or spontaneous detonation. Take a look at these additional considerations:

  • Environment – Areas with high temperatures and low humidity can increase knocking and the need for higher octane.
  • Vehicle age – Older vehicles can have a buildup of carbon within the cylinder, creating hot spots that lead to pre-ignition. These deposits can also decrease cylinder volume leading to higher pressures.
  • Malfunctioning EGR system – This increases cylinder temperature.
  • Malfunctioning spark plug.
  • Increased load – Do you use your vehicle for towing or steep uphill climbs and frequently see higher RPMs?
  • Malfunctioning cooling system – Higher engine operating temperatures contribute to knocking.

To better understand this topic, read up on why engines misfire.

Is ‘unleaded’ gas my only option?

Many drivers will remember the days of having to choose between leaded and unleaded fuel. Around the 1920s, a partnership between GM and ESSO (now Exxon) discovered that adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to fuel helped raise the octane ratings above what they were listed at by increasing the compression ratio.

Leaded fuel also came with the added benefit of helping protect soft valve seats, like those found in many 1970s-era vehicles and earlier. During engine operation, heat from combustion gases causes valves to temporarily weld themselves to valve seats, if only for a tiny fraction of a second. Each time the weld between the two is broken, minute metal pieces from the soft valve seat are torn away, attaching to the valve. Over time, these deposits oxidize and further harden, inflicting damage on the valve seat as the valve continually hammers down. Lead in fuel helped prevent the two from welding, reducing valve seat recession or wear.

It was soon discovered, however, that the lead gasoline spewing from the exhaust of millions of vehicles worldwide was toxic for the environment, not to mention devastating to human health. As a result, leaded gas was gradually phased out in the 70s.

Then how do I prevent damage to my 1970’s muscle car?

In the absence of leaded fuel, you have two options. You can install hardened valve seats or replace a cast-iron head with an alloy one. Also, don’t overwork your engine; be sure to turn consistently high RPMs; prevent your engine from getting too hot; and add a lead substitute to your gas tank, which contains anti-wear properties.

What about fuel additives?

Consider using one of the countless octane boosters available, most of which are designated as being safe for turbos, oxygen sensors, and catalytic converters. You can also use a fuel stabilizer like Sea Foam. Both products will improve performance and prolong the life of your engine.

 

The Future is Now: Artificial Intelligence and Driverless Cars

Robotic cars photo“Self-steering will become a fringe taste – like baking from scratch and riding horses – but regarded as dangerous and socially irresponsible. It will be left to young men who are prone to high-risk behavior, a few type-A personalities with control issues, and some old people who just don’t like to change.” (D.C. Innes)

As of June 2015, there are 77 public-street permits in California for driverless cars, also called autonomous or self-driving cars. Not surprisingly, 48 of them are licensed to the Internet giant Google (up from just 23 in May 2015), with Tesla coming in second with 12 permits – and Mercedes-Benz having two. Google plans to test its 25 added permits on a new fleet of cars on private roads, transferring them to public roads later this summer.

Reasons for the push for driverless cars include that these vehicles are expected to:

• Reduce accidents

• Eventually eliminate most traffic congestion

• Decrease the need for highway expansion because these cars operate bumper-to-bumper at higher speeds, reducing fuel consumption and emissions

Currently, there are 306 people who are licensed to operate autonomous cars – and 202 of them are associated with Google. Sound like something you’d like to do? Here are guidelines for California drivers who’d like to be licensed for driverless cars.

Six accident reports have been filed with these driverless cars so far, five of which with Google’s vehicles. Google had already disclosed four of those accidents, stating that they happened because of human error, either the one in control of the driverless car or by another driver. The fifth accident happened in June and, since Google has committed to reporting these accidents, information will likely be forthcoming about that incident soon. Here are more specifics.

Drive via your smartphone — and much more

Take a look at this quote (and be prepared for some British spellings): “It SOUNDS like a scene from a James Bond film. BMW has revealed a car that can drive itself around a multistorey car park and then manoeuvre itself into a bay – all at the touch of a smartwatch. When the owner returns, weighed down with bags of shopping, the car will come and meet them.”

BMW calls this feature “remote valet parking” and they did the big reveal at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. Meanwhile, here is a demonstration of the current park assist feature available from BMW, which is still cool all by itself.

Another feature revealed by BMW at the Consumer Electronics Show involves a camera that’s embedded in the headline between the driver and passenger. And, if a phone call comes in, point a finger and move it towards the screen to answer the call. Move your finger to the right – and you’ve declined the call. If the screen is in music mode, you can adjust the volume by making a finger circle. Lost? Point two fingers at the screen to get directions home.

Robotic cars 3Sitting in the rear? You really can become a back-seat driver through your Samsung tablet. You can adjust the car’s temperature, the music or movie that’s playing or your seat’s position with just a few quick clicks.

Also revealed at the show was Driver Assist technology, in development by Hyundai. This technology tells drivers how to reach a destination, but “also displays upcoming street signs, warns the driver of other vehicles that are likely to cut them off, and helps them navigate difficult turns and exits with easy-to-follow arrows on the monitor. It also has a warning system that alerts the driver of pedestrians and animals in the car’s path and will automatically brake if they are too close.”

This car can also monitor drivers’ heart rates and pull itself over and call for emergency help if the driver suffers signs of a heart attack. For more on that subject, see our previous blog post titled Cars of the Future: Personalized Ambulances.

To put its money where its mouth is, Audi had its A7 Piloted Driving concept car drive to the Las Vegas Convention Center from Palo Alto, California, traveling for more than 550 miles without the human in the driver’s seat taking charge. The car safely changed lanes and passed other vehicles. The car can recognize SUVs, trucks and police cars, distinguishing them from more ordinary cars, and can spot pedestrians, even those partially blocked by parked cars.

All of this technology takes real computer power, so Audi invested in the Tegra X1 superchip that allows a car to “learn” how to drive via the computer’s training algorithm. Although the Tegra X1 is only the size of a thumbnail, it’s said to have the power of a room-sized supercomputer from only ten years ago.

 Mercedes-Benz displayed the F 015 Luxury in Motion concept, where passengers can rotate bucket seats to face one another while the car automatically drives, a seating arrangement not available since the days of horse and buggy. Door panel touchscreens allow passengers to make video calls, surf the web and post on social media. LED lighting on the outside of the vehicle tells pedestrians whether the car is being driven by a person (white lights) or autonomously (blue lights). Plus, the car can project a virtual crosswalk to let pedestrians know how to safely cross the street when near the vehicle.

All of this new technology can seem exciting – or scary. To calm fears, journalists were taken on a ride with a Volkswagen Passat with Cruise4U technology, which allows for autopilot steering, accelerating and braking.

What does the future hold for driverless cars?

Ford Motor Company is predicting that vehicles will have “fully autonomous navigation and parking” after 2025. Ford already has its own automated research vehicle, released at the end of 2013 in an experiment with State Farm Insurance and the University of Michigan to develop ways for cars to “’communicate with each other and the world around them to make driving safer’ and reduce congestion.”

This vehicle contains sensors that scan up to 200 feet of roadway, “using light in the same way that a bat or dolphin uses sound waves.” Meanwhile, some Ford cars can already send a signal when another vehicle has entered a driver’s blind spot, and the steering wheel vibrates when the driver is veering out of his or her lane.

IHS Automotive agrees that self-driving cars will debut for the average person around 2025, and predicts that, in the first year, about 2/10 of 1% of sales will be self-drivers. That would be about 230,000 cars of the projected 115 million car sales anticipated for that year. Within twenty years of their debut, IHS expects that driverless cars will account for about nine percent of car sales.

So, how are you feeling about all of this? Excited? Anxious to own a self-driver? Or, do you like driving too much?

About a year and a half ago, Advance Auto Parts talked to experts about automated vehicles, including Phil Floraday, senior web editor of Automobile Magazine. Phil open admitted that he wasn’t thrilled about the trend, saying that, “I want people to have the driving experience. Face it, at Automobile, we still like manual transmissions. We believe in man-machine interaction because of the amount of joy you can get from really good transmission, from really good brakes. You blend into the car and become like one.”

Fast forward to today. On June 22, 2015, WorldMag.com published an article by D.C. Innes, who is an associate professor of politics at The King’s College, titled The car of the future and our future in cars. Innes believes that, “Despite our love for the wheel, we may be drawn inexorably into going driverless.” He blames insurance companies, saying that carriers will most likely charge high premiums to people who want to steer their own vehicles.

The good news? It’s likely that people who do own driverless cars will see a significant reduction in their insurance premiums. Less likelihood of accidents = lower premiums.Robotic cars 1

Time of transition

The transition to driverless cars will be – and has already been – gradual. In 2013, we’d talked to Steve Garfink of Seer Communication. Steve consults with companies, research groups and governmental agencies that are focusing on the transition from human driving to autonomous driving. He shared a rating system where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) lists five levels, some of which have already taken place:

• Level 0: no automation, with the driver needing to be in complete control of steering, braking and the like at all times

•Level 1: function-specific automation, where vehicles have at least one automated feature, such as adaptive cruise control, electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, which help a driver brake more quickly

• Level 2: the combination of two or more autonomous technologies, such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering; in this level, a driver must be prepared to take manual control of his or her vehicle back at any time. Some of these technologies may only be workable in highway driving, in favorable weather conditions and the like.

• Level 3: in this level, drivers will not need to constantly monitor road conditions; rather, he or she will be given a reasonable amount of time to transition from the autonomous driving experience to the more traditional manual driving; in theory, a driver of a level 3 car would, according to Steve, presumably “be free to talk on the phone, text, read the paper, or do whatever else they want knowing they will have plenty of reaction time before they have to pay attention to the road.” When this type of driving becomes available, a long trip could become a productive time, without the “tension of navigating among the big rigs plying” the highway.

• Level 4: the vehicle can handle all “safety-critical driving functions,” and can simply provide destination/navigation information; this vehicle could be occupied or unoccupied.

Steve gave a couple more predictions:

• In California – and perhaps other places – there will be no new regulations until a vehicle reaches level 2.

• Drivers may treat level 2 vehicles, where a driver must be prepared to take back control at any time, as level 3, where more transition time from driverless to driver-controlled exists. It will be interesting, Steve says, to see the effects of that on road safety.

Editor’s note: What are your thoughts about driverless cars? Share them in the comments below! And know that, as cars evolve, Advance Auto Parts will keep providing you with what you need to maintain and upgrade your vehicles.