Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Road Rant: I have a question. What, in the name of all that is Holy, is the purpose of the check engine light on your dashboard? If you are 600 miles away from home and it goes off, what are you supposed to do? As instructed, I opened the hood and checked the engine. Sure enough, it was still there.

I don’t mind a warning light when the car detects some suspicious goings-on under the hood, but the technology designer in me says -- out loud, waving my hands, terrifying other drivers -- "How STUPID is this?"

There are two classes of things that can go wrong with your car. One is something that can be quickly addressed with some routine maintenance, like low fluid levels. The other is something that must be dealt with by a mechanic. So which is "check engine"? You don’t know. All you know is that something undiscoverable is wrong with your car. Or maybe not, people I know who have had the check engine light come on have told me it comes on for no apparent reason sometimes and the dealer just turns it off. So actually, all you know is that something undiscoverable may or may not be wrong with your car. To quote Bill Murray, "I want to thank you. You could have helped me, but you've done so much more." (Bonus points if you can name the movie.)

Sorry to get all tech-designy on you, but let's think this through for a moment. Inside your car there is a little chip that gets signals from sensors at various positions in your engine. When one of these sensors detects a problem is sends a signal to the chip informing it that is has detected a problem. Rather than report the location the problem was detected - fuel injectors, coolant system, blown fuse, whatever -- the chip just triggers a "check engine" light, effectively narrowing the problem down to the front half of your car.

Auto Industry, pay attention here. Instead of "check engine" why not tell me what problem was detected or at least where in the car it was detected and how dangerous it would be to try to drive the 600 miles from DC to Ann Arbor before getting it fixed. Here's the design in a nutshell. An unobtrusive two digit LED instead of a "check engine" light. The two digit numbers correspond to a list that is in driver's manual indicating what the actual problem is. You can't tell me that technology doesn’t exist. Frankly, I would prefer that to such things voice response. What kind of loser wants to talk to his car?

And while we are on the issue of stupid car tricks, let me just say that I am disturbed by the trend toward auto-nannying of late. The last car I rented was a Buick. I could not -- as far as I could tell -- control the headlights. They went on at off at the car's whim. I found that truly annoying. Popping open the trunk from the driver's seat was not controlled by a little lever next to the seat, like it is in virtually every other car; you had to remove the key from the ignition and insert it into a keyhole on the door. Presumably that was some sort of safety measure, but it was a pain when I pulled up to a hotel and had to pop the trunk to get my bags before letting the valet take the car. We also have the phenomena of windshield wipers that go on automatically. And you've seen the commercials where the guy asks his dashboard for directions to a Chinese restaurant. Stop doing that kind of stuff and give me better 'check engine' diagnostics.

And another thing. If you want to do something really useful, how about giving me some warning when my tire is about to blow-out? I had the wonderful experience of having a blow-out on the Ohio turnpike. Not just a flat tire, a full-on, tire-shredding blow-out that left me riding the rim at freeway speeds until I could pull on to the shoulder where I had to change the tire with triple trailer semis flying by about four feet from my nose. Lucky for me my check engine light was on.

And speaking of the turnpike, I hereby declare the Pennsylvania turnpike to be the most irritating road in America. First off, I loathe toll roads. Maybe this is because I live in Michigan where there are no toll roads so I believe free access to highways is a God-given right. Second, there are long stretches where the speed limit is 55. You are led to believe this is because of construction, but there is no evidence of construction -- workers, no equipment, no orange cones. Seriously, has anyone except a hamster like Jimmy Carter ever really believed the speed limit should be 55? I am convinced the 55 speed limit is an attempt to manipulate you, which PA has a policy of doing. To wit, and thirdly, they have a policy of posting strange statements on big orange signs get you to slow down. According to the PA DOT:
The Safe Driver Advisory sign sequence delivers six messages to passing motorists:

A couple of those are really strange. "Aggressive driver in high crash area" for instance. That could be an accusation that you are an aggressive driver in a high crash area, but I am not an aggressive driver and it seems they put these things just about anywhere they feel like it which undercuts the notion that you are in a warning that you are in some sort of high crash area. So that's just confusing. The fifth one, TARGETED ENFORCEMENT AREA, is insulting. Assuming that means "speed trap", then exactly how chuckleheaded would I have to be to believe that they were not only going to have a defined, permanent speed trap, but they were also going to warn you about it? Well, I'm not that chuckleheaded, but the PA DOT may be.

And then, there's this whole business of having two separate tolls. It used to be that as you entered or exited through the western border of PA, you stopped at a toll booth and got a ticket which stood you for the duration of your trip. That, apparently, wasn't annoying enough. So they moved the ticketing booth 10 or 15 miles east and added a tollbooth on the border where you have to pay $1 cash on the spot. Now, instead of getting a ticket when you enter PA and paying when you exit the turnpike, you stop at one tollbooth and pay a dollar cash, then you stop at another tollbooth some miles up the turnpike and get a ticket that carries you the rest of the way. What is the possible advantage of having an extra cash stop instead of adjusting the ticket fees so an exit in at the right place would cost a dollar? This is the slippery slope of irrationality that starts with toll roads and Targeted Enforcement Areas.

And what about Breezewood? Anyone who has had to get to DC via road from any point northwest of approximately Pittsburgh (including Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago…) is familiar with Breezewood, a city of hotels. When you exit the PA turnpike and head south towards DC, you don’t just exit on to another freeway like in a state with a relatively sane DOT. You exit the turnpike and are squeezed and hustled through Breezewood for, oh, maybe a mile, including a stoplight or two, then you get on a different freeway for the journey south. If you do this on off times it's not so bad. If you hit an inopportune time of day/week/month/year correctly you will find traffic backed up a couple of miles back on the turnpike to get through this bottleneck.

It has been this way since before I was born and PA has never gotten around to building a freeway-to-freeway exit to bypass Breezewood. It's a particularly ugly stretch of road –- fast food, truck stops, motels – yet everybody gets hustled through it. It's just the price you pay for driving to DC.

OK. I'm done now. I'm back home in Michigan where the roads are free, and the speed traps are hidden.