The Buzzers Cars Don’t Have – But Probably Should

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Most new cars have warning buzzers for half a dozen different things. Just not for the important things.

Like, for instance, total loss of engine coolant.

A friend told me her car’s heater wasn’t working so I went outside to have a look. Sure enough, no heat – but the engine was making plenty of it. The problem was lack of heat transfer.

And of cooling.

The lower radiator hose slipped off and the entire contents of the radiator had gushed out while she was driving.

Without coolant, the engine had overheated – and the main clue the car gave about its condition was an absence of heat.

If that sounds contradictory, wait.

The engine generates heat by combustion – by burning gas (or diesel). This heat has to be managed as too much heat is not heathy for the engine. Enter the coolant. This fluid circulates through the engine, carrying excess heat away from it and to the radiator – where it is radiated harmlessly into the surrounding air via cooling fins through which the fluid passes before heading back into the engine to gather more heat – and repeat.

But the cooling system is also a heating system – for the passenger compartment. Some of the warm coolant is diverted to a smaller radiator called the heater core – usually located in the cowl/firewall. The warm coolant passes through this part and a fan pushes air over it and that is how you get heat inside the car.

Unless, of course, there’s no coolant in the heater core.

Then you just get air – as cold as the outside air – even as the engine gets hotter and hotter . . . .

For the car hip, it’s what they call in law enforcement a clue that something’s not right. Something serious. Something that calls for an immediate pull-of-the-road to find out why there is no heat. And the very first thing a car-hip person would do is to glance at the temperature gauge in the instrument panel.

Odds are, it’s spiked in the red zone – and the longer it stays there, the greater the odds of something much worse than being cold occurring. Like a blown head gasket. Or major engine damage, even.

You’d think it would be cause for a buzzer – to prompt the not-hip driver to look at his (or her, in this case) gauges before something goes horribly kaput.

Every new car has a belligerent seatbelt buzzer – but failing to buckle-up won’t hurt the car (or your wallet).

Many cars have buzzers – or similar irritants – for all kinds of other things, too. Most if not all of them having nothing at all to do with critical mechanical functions. I test-drove a Subaru recently that nagged me incessantly for the 30-something miles it took me to get home from Lowes with a few 2x4s stowed in back  . . .  because the liftgate wasn’t fully closed.

On purpose.

I could not have gotten the boards home otherwise. About a third of the 2x4x8s was in the breeze, with the tailgate safely secured (though not entirely closed) with rope. The car would not accept this and harangued me all the way to my driveway.

But a potentially catastrophic mechanical issue that demands immediate attention – and immediate action?

Eh…  no big deal. Apparently.

There are warning lights, usually. But the not-hip often have no clue what the illuminated symbols means.

My friend, for example, later explained that she thought the snowflake icon that lights up in the main gauge display of her car indicated it was cool. It was explained to her that the snowflake symbol usually means the AC is on.

And there are gauges for things like temperature, oil pressure, voltage. Almost all new cars – even economy cars – now have them. They didn’t used to. It used to be that gauges were found almost exclusively in high-performance or at least sporty cars – on the theory that the people who bought such cars were largely car-hip and so looked at the gauges.

Other cars had  what were styled idiot lights – big things you couldn’t miss, right there in front of you, that lit up red and backlit very clear verbiage – such as coolant, for instance.

Sometimes, it just said hot.

Hard to ignore. And easy to understand.

Today’s cars have lots of lights, but they are usually much smaller and so much easier to miss among the pinball machine-like array of other lights one finds in the dash display of modern cars.

They also illuminate often inscrutable, heiroglyphic-like “icons” that many people cannot parse without consulting the Rosetta Stone of the car’s owner’s manual. Which most don’t. And so, they do not see, or become alarmed by – because they do not understand what it signifies – the little light and the funny symbol that just came on.

And keep on driving… .

My friend would probably have melted the engine in her car had her destination been 25 miles down the road rather than five or so. The loss of about two gallons of $8 coolant (be sure you use the right coolant for your car – or universal coolant) could easily have resulted in several thousand dollars in damage.

A buzzer would have been helpful.

Something at least as demanding of attention as the seatbelt saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety buzzer.

It is very arguable that the emphasis of all the buzzing and beeping over non-critical things such as a seatbelt not having been buckled or a tailgate not fully closed has dulled our senses to more important warnings about things that actually do matter.

In an airplane, when a buzzer sounds, it prompts the pilot to look for the reason why. It is generally something important.

It ought to work the same in cars – especially given that many drivers are not as mindful as pilots tend to be about what’s going on under the hood.

. . .

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43 COMMENTS

  1. You mentioned aircraft and pilots dealing with this.

    The problem arose that there were way too many buzzers, alarms and warning lights, that all sounded the same, so that pilots started suffering “alarm fatigue”.

    For about thirty years or more now, all cockpits of commercial airliners have voice warnings for critical failures or dangerous flight conditions or hazards.

  2. I was recently driving my 03 Expedition and noticed it running funny, it hiccuped a little, I checked the gauges and sure enough, the engine was overheated.

    no buzzer, no beeper, no light, nothing.

    Oh My God, you should hear the noise it makes if I leave the headlights on, or the keys in the ignition and open the door,

    or dont buckle up.

    It sounds like an alarm signalling a nuclear meltdown at three mile island
    but when Im fixing to ruin a $3000 engine?

    crickets.

    shoot, even my 1978 Freightliner Cabover had a low oil pressure shutdown, which you had to over ride on startup, and a buzzer for low oil pressure and a buzzer for high coolant temp.

    but my late 90s Freighliner had none of this although it did have plenty of sensors that would shut down the engine with no warning, if the coolant was low in the plastic reservoir, the engine would shut off with no warning,
    fun on the Lake Pontchartrain bridge. 12 miles long with no shoulder, so Im blocking a lane ,
    I had to dump the water from my cooler into the reservoir to get it to crank again,

  3. Eric – the Subaru was probably warning you about exhaust fumes being drawn into the vehicle. I drove back from Ikea outside of Washington one time in the ML320 with the hatch tied down against some long bookcase boxes, and I was getting headaches until I rolled the front windows down to get some flow-through ventilation.

  4. I once had an 89 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, with the 4.1 V8 no less!, and it has two stages of idiot lights: The first was “Service Soon” for anything emission control related, which of course you could blow off, or fix it with your next paycheck, etc., etc. The second one was “Service Now”, and by “Now” they meant ….R-I-G-H-T ….N-O-W !!!!, to mean that very instant! Happened once for me regarding a voltage regulator. (Yes, can limp home on just the battery power, if you’re close enough to home, but there was no putting off and continuing to drive the car till next payday!!) So, the Service Now light was then meant for catastrophic things like that.

    Wish I still had that car…

    • I had an ’81 Coupe De Ville….also with the cruddy HT4100 engine. Didn’t have it long- had a bad cam. T’was a gorgeous car though…I sure wish I still had that now- it’d be worth rigging a real engine ‘er. I paid a whole $75 for her! (Yep…seventy-five bucks!), I wish I had a picture of her- she was flawless!

  5. Low coolant lights do exist. Practically every sort of proper warning is on some cars somewhere. The issue is that there’s no established standard what sort of proper warnings any particular car might have. It seems to be the whim of make, model, and year.

    As to the example car you’re talking about if it was driven in this no coolant condition then the rings are probably done for even if everything seems good now. The rings can loose their heat treatment and then quickly wear away having the car burn oil.

    • Hi Brent,

      The light yes; and in this case, there was a digital readout warning about “high engine temperature” – but no buzzer. My friend – who is my buddy’s mom, in her 70s – didn’t notice the “high engine temperature” (in small font) readout buried among the other readouts. A buzzer tied to a light would have helped!

      • There must be so many bells and whistles on these newer vehicles, I’d imagine that most people quickly grow to just ignore them. Whether it’s advertising, or weather warnings, or endlessly empty threats of ‘wait till your father gets home’, people only pay attention if they are rare enough to carry real weight. When it becomes a regular occurrence; a common thing, no one pays attention- they stop paying attention; the warnings lose their import and urgency. Once we become oversaturated with anything, it essentially becomes invisible/inaudible. (You’d think advertisers would’ve learnt this by now!)

        • The same applies to everyone is a people populated warehouse or other workplace wearing fluoro vests. After a while the brain treats the loud colour as a part of the background scenery and teaches your brain to ignore the loud colour. Which is why safety vests do not reduce accidents. They do however, in a terrorist attack highlight the soft area for target shooters or knifers.

  6. My fave is the geezer alarm. My husband drove several miles with his turn signal blinking, so his truck dinged at him. We tested it in my Mustang on a long country drive with no one behind me. I think it’s based on minutes, 3 in the Mustang’s case. Unlike the other alarm I usually get: “Transmission not in Park,” the geezer alarm is fast, loud, panicky and insistent, more like the seatbelt dinger (which we disabled the day I bought the car.) And worse, the info window tells you NOTHING about why it’s freaking out … no written message or little icon about what the issue is. I was expecting the alarm and it still scared me. I think if someone really was driving along with no idea their blinker was blinking, this alarm could range from panic-inducing and wreck-causing to – hopefully – merely unhelpful.

    • Hi Amy,

      That’s right up there…! My favorite, though, has to be the back-up buzzer in the Toyota Prius. Put the car – and it’s a small car – in Reverse and the Ding! Ding! Ding! commences, as if you were maneuvering the Queen Mary into position dockside. It’s both absurd – and incredibly annoying.

      • Well, there is the solution to buzzers I have always used since I tend to drive high mile beaters. Usually with at least one faulty ‘door ajar’ or ‘hatch open’ sensor. Find the buzzer and pull the plug.

        No door, key, hatch or any other warning noise now. Easy.

        Of course after about 2004, I suspect doing so would cripple the car due to ‘everything integration’.

        • I would have no earthly idea how to disable a buzzer nowadays. My husband has shut off the seatbelt alarm on my last three Mustangs. All I know is you do something with the fob.
          Another issue for me is my garage door opener. I have a device that allows me to hit my brights to open/close the door. I loved it. No worrying about replacing that little battery of losing the fob. It worked on my last two cars and one is also on both our Ford trucks and the Harley. We cannot figure out how to put it on my 2016 Mustang though. My husband has done tons of research and even called the company, but apparently, adding foreign aftermarket technology to this car is like introducing the Ebola virus to a biological organism. “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

    • That signal alarm about freaked me out the first time it went off: “what the hell is wrong with this POS now?!!!”

      But out west some interstate off ramps are almost a half mile long, and if you’re turning right at the bottom, then … well of course your right signal is still ON.

      Gets me everytime southbound into the rest area at Kaycee WY. (right turn, right turn, right turn)

  7. How about these ideas, on top of a Check Engine Panel that actually tells you the OBD code and what’s throwing it, like a bad EGR valve, instead of some stupid, generic CEL you need a code reader for?

    • But then how would the stealerships rip people off when they bring their car in because the idjit light is on, and it’s just a loose gas cap?

      In a sane world though, where businesses actually cared about building long-term loyalty and reputations for quality, wouldn’t that be a cheap and easy way to make life easier for everyone?!

    • Basic OBD2 code reader available from O’Really for about $65.

      Then do a search on your web gizmo to find out what to do (or not) about it.

      But yeah – Bigg Motors could include not only code definition but an entire service manual on that little screen in the middle of the dash

  8. My 2009 SEAT Leon (https://www.topspeed.com/cars/seat/2009-seat-leon-ar72517.html) (and I believe all modern VW’s) has a simple metalic two pronged sensor in the coolant expansion tank, that buzzes at you and warns you in the small digital display in the cluster gauge, that you must stop immediately because there’s not enough coolant in the reservoir.

    Pretty useful since it detected a small leak in the water pump, that lasted a couple of years before it was leaking too much… talking about deferred maintenance, 😀

  9. Can’t find an image of one to verify, but IIRC the old Dodge Omni stock dash was a speedo that went to 85, fuel and temperature gauges and a “too late” light. That’s it. Only other vehicle with so few gauges was the 1991 Chevy Lumina Z34.

    Interesting that the Cherokee has a full compliment of gages, but they only display one at a time by scrolling though the display. I don’t think I’ll test to see if there’s an alarm if the engine overheats. It certainly creates a racket when I back into the garage though. It also (eventually) will alert when it’s time to change the oil. You’d think it would be trivial to add all the scheduled maintenance items into the infotainment system, but I guess oil is the only thing that anyone thinks about these days. I’ll bet it wouldn’t be too difficult to measure break pad wear too.

    Interesting fact about the Lumina, the V6 was that GM block that was used in just about everything. 1990 or 91 was when they switched from cap and rotor to ignition block, but instead of reworking the casting, they just put a plug on the hole left from the rotor shaft. After about 150,000 miles the gasket perished, causing a major oil leak. My normal mechanic, after repairing one on his daughters’ car, swore he’d never do it again. Apparently you have to tear out most of the engine to get to the gasket. The dealer wanted more than the car was worth to repair it.

      • Now, now, Eric! Don’t poo-poo Crapaliers! I was just thinking of buying you a Cimmaron! [Now if I can just find another $5 bill to add to the 5 I already have, that should about do ‘er!]

        • Actually survivor bias might work for a Cavalier. One that has lived long enough to still be on the road today might be one that GM put together correctly and won the parts quality lottery. The fundamentals weren’t bad for the Cavalier and its siblings, the execution was the issue.

          A year or three or more ago I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw an early (’83ish) Cavalier on I294. The owner had rigged up a tablet on dash where the double DIN radio would be. It was like the time I saw a Trabant. That rare.

          • Those Crapaliers were so crappy, they’re one car I’d rather not see survive! They had no character whatsoever. They just felt like rolling poverty transportation appliances. Back when ya used to see them around, if there were two or three in a parking lot, it looked like a car ghetto!

            • I had a used 1992 Cavalier with 100000 miles on it as my first car. It was a very dependable car. Got me from NY to Florida and back. Speedometer only went to 85 but my uncle bet me I couldn’t keep up with him and his Cadillac on a trip from Buffalo to Detroit through Ontario. We had to have been going 100 mph or more and that little 4-cylinder kept up with him. Speedometer was almost back around to 5 mph. Fun times.

              • Hi Tom,

                Some Cavaliers – I can’t recall offhand which years – had a known (GM acknowledged) head gasket failure issue. The failure was recurrent because the problem was designed in. You’d get it fixed under warranty, but the next time (or the next owner) it wouldn’t be covered. Rinse, repeat!

                • So true, Eric! Back in the 90’s when I used to haul junk, a large percentage of the cars I’d pick up were Crapaliers (or their other GM brand clones) and almost every single one of ’em was being junked due a bad head gasket!

                  Check it out: The one pic I have on ‘puter of this truck, and…..tah-dah! What’s that red car on the bang bar? Why, it’s an ’86 Olds Firenza- the Olds version of the J-car(Cavalier)!
                  https://imgur.com/a/VfHAaqZ

            • Don’t diss the Cavalier. I had a 1993 Pontiac Sunbird (same car, different badge) with the 3.1L V6 and the bulletproof Getrag 5-speed. Loved that little car, had as much “character” as you could ever want, even after all the abuse and neglect it had been through (some of it at my hands) it just felt like it was secretly a Trans Am inside and was itching for a chance to show you. I got my first and so far only ticket (104 in a 65) in that car. Put too much oil in it like an idiot and messed up the piston rings, then a rod from that. That’s how I ended up driving an Escort.

              Still have it sitting in my yard; once I have the money I plan to drop in a 3.4 and then rebuild the 3.1 in case I ever get a Fiero.

              Now if only there were any place to use such a car…

            • I had an ’88 Cavalier Z-24 that looked pretty sharp, and was a good car. Of course, it did have spoilers and fairings on it unlike standard ones. It also had a 2.8 liter V-6 with mult-port fuel injection. It would out launch practically all other cars too, aside from the Z -28s, Corvettes, and the like. Remember that the vast majority of ’80’s cars were pathetically underpowered. The car could have used an overdrive gear though. The engine was redlined on the tach at 110 mph.

  10. Great write up Eric- and spot on.

    I just ran into this a couple of days ago on my old 93′ GMC conversion van. I always take it out on the weekend to make sure it gets a couple of heat cycles in to keep the seals from dry rotting. It’s a boat towing/camping vehicle for family trips outside of our daily drivers.

    Anyway, coming back from an in town trip, I just happen to notice the temp gauge was in the red. No buzzer or idiot light to catch my attention. Fortunately I was a mile from home and got it back without damage(yay for understressed low compression v8’s!). I had the radiator replaced last year and I’m pretty sure the mechanic didn’t drop the requisite sealing tabs GM recommends on mid 90’s vehicles to seal minor system leaks. It was down around a gallon so I bought some tabs and topped it off.

    To your point however, my boat has an old 84′ two stroke Evinrude v4…that buzzes rudely if it is overheating…seems like common sense. Certainly you don’t want to be at sea with a blown engine.

    If one was a skeptic, they might think the auto manufacturers are purposely slack on notifying drivers of imminent engine catastrophe for less than noble reasons.

  11. Speaking of coolant: I normally don’t shop at Advance Auto [They play [c]rap music, and have clueless babies working there] but my local one has been having Fleet Charge for $8/Gal for quite some time! (I imagine they all do).

    Be careful there though- they wanted like $14/Qt. for Mobil One synthetic 5W50 (I use it for hydraulic fluid in one of my mowers…)- whereas it’s only $22 for a 5 quart jug at Walmart.

    • I’m not a big fan of Wart-mart in general, but for some things they definitely have the best prices. Oil and other automotive fluids are definitely among those items. They just about always have the best price on the name-brand stuff, and their Supertech line is actually quite good and even less expensive.

      • Yep, Jason. I’ll buy Rotella there; Mobil One; SuperTech(Oil, tranny fluid, brake fluid)- Trouble with my local Wal-fart is that it is always very poorly stocked- the shelves are always half empty because the dumb bitch who manages it, can’t. So I stock up when I find it- it’s always many dollars cheaper than the autoparts stores- sometimes nearly half the price.

        I hit NAPA when they’re having they’re spring half-price filter sale…. The hydraulic filter for my tractor is normally $70 there….so when it’s on half-price sale, that alone makes a big difference!

  12. Eric,

    Aren’t those “Standardized” symbols?

    As in ANSI/ISO?

    When the goal is to standardize the human livestock, the omissions you write about are NOT a bug. Rather a feature.

    Don’t want people wandering too far away from the tax farm.

  13. Contrary to popular belief, the technology is not new, nor is it something that’s never been used: My aunt’s 1969 Chrysler Imperial came with something called the Sentry Signal System: Whenever oil pressure was low, the coolant was overheating, the charging system not charging, or fuel was running low, a “CHECK GAUGES” light came on to alert you to the problem.

    Later Imperials came with red LEDs in the gauges themselves that lit up when there was a problem.

    I remember seeing sales literature that touted how unlike Cadillacs and Lincoln’s, Imperials came with a full set of gauges, and had the Sentry Signal System as an extra warning.

    • Hi Bryce,

      Yup – and today, it’d be even simpler. The problem is one of emphasis. They – the government and, to a great extent, the car industry – seem to care much less about such practical and useful considerations than about pushy/busybody things like the saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety buzzers.

      • The government even trumps the automakers. When OBD2 was being debated I’ve read the automakers wanted to display the code on the dash. The government wanted the scary ‘check engine’ light catch all to frighten people into getting the car serviced.

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