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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Vehicles cannot really talk

Human attributes are assigned to automobiles at times, but they can’t really talk.  Although artificial voices abound, first in the 1980s when some models informed drivers of their foibles like “left door is open,” through now, when drivers might hear “here is a list of possible commands” from their on-board navigation system.

Sure, a vehicle’s computer archives fault codes and even interprets some of those digital codes into dashboard text messages like “fuel level is low.”  And a professional technician with the right equipment can analyze the triggered codes to discern causes and needed repairs.

But such systems and events don’t let drivers know, to attribute more human traits, how a vehicle “feels,” or it’s general state of “health,”  There are other non-verbal and unwritten signals, however, that drivers can uncover via sight, sound and even smell.

The gauges monitor crucial items like coolant temperature, oil pressure, charging system, and fuel.  Get to know the normal operating ranges of these indicators, and keep an eye on them for advance warnings of potential disaster.

Stay acutely aware of unusual noises or vibrations while driving.  So you can talk to a service advisor about them, decide if you are hearing a thump, click, clang, bang, whir, buzz, scrape, or pop, and be able to describe when they occur.  Some noises are only heard when either cold or hot, at certain speeds, when accelerating, when braking, or at other specific times.  An accurate description, along with where the noise originates greatly aids technicians attempting diagnosis.

Fluid drips can tell plenty about potential auto problems — learning to read them is helpful.  Fuel leaks can usually be detected by smell as much as sight — if you smell fuel during normal operation, it is not normal.  Coolant leaks are not normal either, and often appear as greenish-yellow puddles under the engine area.  Newer cars, though, use a reddish-colored coolant that appears much like automatic transmission fluid when it makes a puddle.  Older cars may leak a bit of oil or transmission fluid without much harm, but if coolant is leaking, a fix is in order.

Any unusual smell is a potential concern.  Experienced sniffers will even know if the odor is coolant, oil-on-exhaust, gasoline or something else.

Simply if and how a modern car runs is the best predictor of condition.  With electronic fuel injection, and multi-sensor, computer-controlled engine/transmission management, today’s vehicles perform flawlessly in the full range of operating conditions.  It follows, then, that when you experience hard starting, surging, fast idle, slow idle, or irregular shifting, something is wrong.  When any change occurs in the way that your vehicle runs, head to your favorite shop before it worsens.  One problem can easily lead to another, whereas the fix may have been relatively simple if handled quickly.  Any faulty electronic sensor can make your car run very poorly or even leave you stranded.

We ask a lot of our cars, expecting faithful service whenever we turn the key.  For the most part, these modern mechanical marvels dutifully perform the tasks we ask with convenience, dependability, and safety.  And too often, drivers take a deferred approach to vehicle care and operation. 

Just “listen” to your car (with eyes and ears), even though it doesn’t talk — and heed the warnings of those non-verbal signals, which are vehicles’ cries for help.  

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at