What is a solenoid?

Your vehicle’s starter motor has the important job of starting the engine. But something also has to start the starter. And that something is the solenoid. In most automotive applications today, the solenoid is attached to the starter, with the two of them getting removed as a unit when necessary.

How a solenoid works

When running properly, and as long as it has a supply of fuel, the internal combustion engine continues to run by itself in an ongoing process from the inertia of the engine’s moving parts. But starting the engine is a separate process to get that inertia moving in the first place. This is the job of the starting system, whose main components include the:

  • Battery
  • Starter motor
  • Solenoid
  • Starter switch

Starting an engine: The first action

The process involves not one, but two separate electric currents – a stronger one and a weaker one. When activated, usually by turning a key in the ignition switch, the weaker current passes through the switch and to the solenoid. At that point, the current forces two large contacts to come together in the solenoid, which allows the stronger electric current to pass through the solenoid’s contacts. These contacts carry a current that requires heavy wiring cables directly from the battery. This current is heavy enough that it would be unwise to send it through a hand-operated switching mechanism. Hence, the need for the weaker current through the ignition switch.

The stronger current passes to the starter motor where it initiates two separate actions. The starter motor is designed so that the electric current activates a lever, forcing a small gear outward on a spring shaft. When extended, this gear, called a pinion, comes in contact with a toothed gear on the outer rim of a large flywheel on the end of the engine’s drive shaft. This large gear is called the starter ring gear.

Starting an engine: The second action

The second action in a direct current electric motor is the rotation of its central shaft, caused by the larger current passing through the motor. A motor transforms electric energy into the mechanical energy of the central shaft’s rotation. It does this because the electric current interacts with the magnetic field in the starter motor and results in the rotor on the shaft beginning to turn. By the time this turning action reaches the motor’s designed top speed, the pinion at the end of this shaft has already engaged the ring gear on the flywheel. The engine then starts running on its own and the starter’s safety features automatically disengage the pinion from the ring gear. The spring brings the pinion safely back to its resting position and the job of the starting mechanism is done.

When starting, if you hold the ignition key in the “start” position a little too long, you will encounter a problem. Here, too, is a spring that brings the switch back to the “on” position from “start” as soon as you release the key. If you fail to do so, you will hear the evidence of your mistake pretty quickly. The good news is that your mistake is not as bad as it sounds. The safety mechanism in the starter has already released the pinion from the ring gear. The bad news is if you do this often or for any extended period, you may drastically shorten the life of the starter motor.

How Can I Tell If My Radiator Is Leaking?

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When the temperature gauge on your dashboard reads high or a temperature warning light comes on, you have a cooling system problem that may be caused by a leak — be it in the radiator itself or some other component.

First, make sure it’s coolant that’s leaking, not another fluid. (Coolant is often referred to as antifreeze, but technically coolant is a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water.) You can easily check the coolant level in your see-through overflow tank. If it’s empty or low, the next step should be to check the coolant level in the radiator, but that should be done only when the engine is cool.

Once you know you’re losing coolant, the radiator is a good place to start. Some radiator leaks will be easy to spot — such as a puddle underneath the radiator — but others not so much. It’s best to check the radiator from every angle, not just from above, and pay particular attention to seams and the bottom. Corrosion inside the radiator or holes from road debris also can cause leaks.

Antifreeze comes in different colors — green, yellow and pinkish-red, for example — feels like slimy water and usually has a sweet smell. If you can’t see coolant dripping or seeping, look for rust, tracks or stains on the radiator. Those are telltale signs of where it has leaked.

If the radiator appears to be OK, the cooling system offers several possibilities for leaks, including the hoses from the radiator to the engine, the radiator cap, water pump, engine block, thermostat, overflow tank, heat exchanger (a small radiator that circulates hot coolant into the dashboard for cabin heating) and others. A blown gasket between the cylinder head and engine block is another possibility, allowing coolant inside the combustion chambers — a problem that must be addressed immediately by a mechanic.

If you can’t find a leak, have it checked by a professional. Coolant has a way of escaping only under pressure when the car is running — possibly in the form of steam, which may not leave a trace.

Rainy Day Refresher

It’s perhaps surprising, but true: Driving on a rainy day is more dangerous than driving pexels-photo-125510on a snowy one. When the rain starts to fall and pavement is wet, your likelihood of a crash is higher than during wintry conditions like snow, sleet and ice, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

After averaging 10 years of statistics, NHTSA researchers found that 46 percent of weather-related crashes happened during rainfall, but just 17 percent while it was snowing or sleeting. Those statistics are partially explained, of course, by the fact that many drivers have the good sense to stay home during a bad snowstorm, says Debbie Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, which offers defensive driving courses. But the statistics also reflect a sobering truth, she says: Drivers often do not respect the rain, and fail to adjust their driving habits to hazardous conditions.

Here is how to reduce the chances of being a rainy day statistic, according to safety experts.

Get Your Car Rain-Ready: Tire tread is key, says Bill Van Tassel, Ph.D., manager of driver training programs for the AAA national office in Orlando, Florida. Dig out a quarter (forget the old advice about Lincoln’s head on a penny, as some researchers have found the quarter test more accurate). Insert it upside down into your tire tread. “If part of Washington’s head is always covered by the tread, your tires have more than 4/32 of an inch of tread remaining. If the top of Washington’s head is exposed at any point, you should replace the tires.”

According to NHTSA, tires with 2/32 of an inch of tread are unsafe. However, you may want to replace tires before they get this worn, depending on driving conditions.

  • Tire pressure is important, too, he says. You should check the pressure once a month, using a tire gauge. NHTSA offers many other tire safety facts.
  • Check your windshield wipers to be sure they’re up to the task. If they need replacing and you’re doing it yourself, you can check online guides to be sure you’re doing it correctly.
  • Check headlights, taillights, brake lights and turn signals to be sure all are working properly. When you’re driving, turn on your headlights to boost your visibility. Some states require the use of headlights when windshield wipers are in use.

Slow down: Driving too fast for conditions is especially dangerous on wet pavement because your tires lose traction with the precipitation, Van Tassel says. “When roadways are wet, the friction is reduced between the tire and the road,” Hersman adds. No friction is a bad thing. Tires are meant to grip the roads, not slide on them.

How much does traction decline in wet weather? “You might lose about one-third of your traction,” Van Tassel says. And that figure is why this recommendation makes sense: Reduce your speed by about a third when it’s wet or rainy. If the speed limit is 55 mph, aim for under 40 mph. “That is not a hard statistic but a rule of thumb,” he says.

Are Your Brakes Trying to Tell You Something?

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If your brakes are trying to tell you something, you should pay attention. A properly operating brake system helps ensure safe vehicle control and operation and it should be checked immediately if you suspect any problems, says the non-profit Car Care Council.

“While an annual brake inspection is a good way to ensure brake safety, motorists should not ignore signs that their brakes need attention,” said Rich White, executive director, Car Care Council. “Knowing the key warning signs that your brakes may need maintenance will go a long way toward keeping you and others safe on the road.”

The Car Care Council reminds motorists to look for the following warning signs that their brakes need to be inspected:

  • Noise: screeching, grinding or clicking noises when applying the brakes.
  • Pulling: vehicle pulls to one side while braking.
  • Low Pedal: brake pedal nearly touches the floor before engaging.
  • Hard Pedal: must apply extreme pressure to the pedal before brakes engage.
  • Grabbing: brakes grab at the slightest touch to the pedal.
  • Vibration: brake pedal vibrates or pulses, even under normal braking conditions.
  • Light: brake light is illuminated on your vehicle’s dashboard.

Because brakes are a normal wear item on any vehicle, they will eventually need to be replaced. Factors that can affect brake wear include driving habits, operating conditions, vehicle type and the quality of the brake lining material. Be sure to avoid letting brakes get to the ‘metal-to-metal’ point as that can mean expensive rotor or drum replacement.

The Car Care Council offers a free custom service schedule and email reminder service to help car owners remember to have their brakes inspected and take better care of their vehicles. It is an easy-to-use resource designed to help motorists drive smart, save money and make informed decisions.

The Car Care Council is the source of information for the “Be Car Care Aware” consumer education campaign promoting the benefits of regular vehicle care, maintenance and repair to consumers. For a copy of the council’s Car Care Guide or for more information, visit www.carcare.org.

11 innovative car keys taking driving to a whole new level

The BMW 7-series’ key has a full-color touch screen.

The BMW 7-series' key has a full-color touch screen.

BMW

It’s only suiting that a car as high-tech as the BMW 7-series would come with a key fob to match it.

It comes with four buttons to lock and unlock the car, pop open the trunk, and panic. But it also comes with a full-color 2.2-inch touch screen that lets you swipe to see information like whether all the doors are locked and your current fuel range.

You can also use the key to control the climate in the car and toggle the lights. But by far the coolest part is that you can use it to park the car remotely.

Tesla’s Model S key can be used to summon the car.

Tesla's Model S key can be used to summon the car.

AP/Carlos Osorio

Tesla’s key fob was actually designed to look like a mini Tesla Model S

In addition to locking and unlocking the car doors, the Tesla key can be used to tell the car to pull forward and backward, all from a semi-remote distance and without anyone inside of the car.

Koenigsegg’s shield fob looks like something a superhero would carry.

Koenigsegg's shield fob looks like something a superhero would carry.

Koenigsegg

When locking and unlocking the doors of a Koenigsegg, you’ll need something that can make as big of a statement as the car itself.

Koenigsegg’s metal shield key doesn’t have any hugely crazy special features, but what it can give you is the sense of authority and a firm reminder that you drive an insane Swedish supercar.

If driving one of these insane supercars doesn’t give you the thrill or feel of power you were looking for, holding this awesome shield key fob just might.

This Ferrari key may not have any tech-savvy features, but the design is stunning.

This Ferrari key may not have any tech-savvy features, but the design is stunning.

Matthew DeBord/Business Insider

First of all, it’s a key with some weight to it. It’s smooth and big enough that it’s enjoyable to hold without being too clunky. Its functional purpose is hidden on the back, where there are three buttons to lock and unlock the doors as well as pop open the trunk.

To start the car, you stick the key in the ignition and then press a separate button on the steering wheel. In that regard, the key really only has an aesthetic purpose. But hey, with the classic prancing horse and deep red color, it’s not something I would mind lugging around.

Unfortunately, the key only comes with older Ferrari models like the FF. Even Ferrari has given up the traditional key or a fob, but this one is still among our favorites.

Aston Martin’s key fob is topped off with a crystal.

Aston Martin's key fob is topped off with a crystal.

Aston Martin

Though it can only really handle the tasks of an average key fob, the aesthetics of this key make it much more special than most others out there.

Inserting this crystal key into the center of an Aston Martin’s dashboard never gets old.

McLaren’s key reminds you lightness is key.

If crystals aren’t really your thing, maybe lightweight carbon fiber is.

McLaren’s key has three buttons and is backed with a carbon fiber rear.

Because you can never have too much carbon fiber.

Never.

Maserati’s key flips out of a compact fob like a switch blade.

It’s a fob with the best of both worlds.

On one had, it has this really neat, smooth packaging so it fits squarely in your palm. It also offers all of the traditional functions of a fob, like the ability to lock, unlock, and pop open the trunk of the car.

But on the other hand, in the fob is still a good ol’ fashion key that swings out.

It’s a fun mix of old and new.

Pagani’s aluminum key does more than just look good.

Though Porsche and Tesla have similar offerings, Pagani’s key fob is the one that truly stands out.

First, it’s the perfect cool looking desk ornament.

Second, it’s also a USB flash drive.

Third, it’s still a key.

How’s that for multi-functional?

Corvette has a great, matte black box of a key.

Most automakers stick to a rounded shape for their key fobs, but Corvette’s black box fits the vibe of the souped-up muscle car.

In addition to the typical fob functions, it also lets you remote start the car.

The Jaguar F-Pace Activity Key is the key to have if you hate using keys.

The Jaguar F-Pace Activity Key is the key to have if you hate using keys.

Jaguar

With the F-Pace’s Activity Key, by holding your wrist up to the Jaguar badge on the rear of the car, you can lock or unlock the vehicle. And it’s waterproof!

The Activity Key is available as a $400 option.

But if you hate even what we consider the crème de la crème of car keys, there’s good news: Volvo is going to start getting rid of keys altogether.

But if you hate even what we consider the crème de la crème of car keys, there's good news: Volvo is going to start getting rid of keys altogether.

Volvo Car Group

Volvo will start selling cars that come with a Bluetooth-enabled digital key that lives on your smartphone. The digital key can lock, unlock, start, and drive the car.

Business Insider’s Aaron Brown wrote a previous version of this article.

THE BLIND MAN WHO INVENTED CRUISE CONTROL

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While speed governing systems have been around on automobiles almost as long as they have existed (the first known one was installed on a Wilson-Pilcher car in 1900) and similar systems have been around long before that to control steam engines (as far back as the 17th century), the invention of the modern cruise control system is credited to inventor and Automotive Hall of Famer, Ralph Teetor- a man who couldn’t actually drive due to being completely blind.

The inspiration for the cruise control system struck Teetor while he was riding with his lawyer in the 1940s.  He noticed the lawyer had a tendency to slow down while talking and speed up while listening. This annoyed Teetor, who decided to come up with a device to control the speed of the car automatically. After several years of tinkering, in 1948 he filed his first patent for a device to accomplish just this. (US 2519859)

It took him almost another decade, and a few more patents filed improving his original device, to finally come up with a version that would be installed on a commercially sold vehicle. The first cars to boast the new technology were the 1958 models of the Chrysler Imperial, New Yorker and Windsor. By 1960, cruise control was a standard feature on all Cadillacs. The system worked by calculating ground speed based on driveshaft rotations. It then used a solenoid, as needed, to vary the position of the throttle cable.

Cruise control went by several names in the early days. It was initially called everything from “Speedostat,” to “Touchomatic” and “Auto-Pilot.” It was Chrysler who finally came up with the “cruise control” name. (Personally, I’d have preferred “Speedostat”…)  Different versions of the cruise control system were soon invented by various people, with the systems receiving a big boost in popularity thanks to the oil crisis of the 1970s and the savings in fuel a cruise control system can potentially have, depending on one’s driving habits. Today, the cruise control systems are still evolving, including beginning to incorporate some more advanced self-driving features such as automatic braking.

How to Protect Your Car’s Interior

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Try to add up the hours you spend in your car. It’s a lot, isn’t it? Commutes, errand runs and road trips can have you sitting in those bucket seats for hours on end, and during that time, you and your passengers are actually living in the interior. That means smudges on the windows, scratches on the dash and food in the seat crevices accumulate and leave you wondering what happened to the spotless interior you swear it had when you first bought the car.
A Quick Clean
Luckily, it’s not that difficult to keep a car’s cabin from looking a little too, well, lived in. First things first, get something to stuff your trash into. Just use a plastic bag or a container you don’t use around the house and throw it in the backseat. You can even affix a temporary hook to the door or seat to keep things even neater. Every once and awhile, take it out and relish in the fact that you haven’t spent an hour cleaning up. Keeping trash off the floor also preserves your carpets, which can get stained from any number of items.
The idea of taking a rag to your dash and leather seats is made easier if you have them on-hand. The key here is to just use a little bit of soapy water to wipe the surfaces of your car – some cleaning products contain alcohols that prematurely dry and age the materials by reducing the flexibility in the vinyl. Store a small spray bottle of your homemade cleaning fluid and a rag under your seat or in a storage bin for access when you’re waiting for your kids to get out of school or sitting in that crazy-long drive-through line. This will also come in handy when an emergency spill happens. Lastly, keep your car smelling like roses (or at least a laundromat) by adding dryer sheets under the seats.
Weather Resistant 
You can’t discount the impact weather has on your vehicle either. In summer, sandy feet can quickly make a mess of an interior, and dare we mention the destruction caused by mud and snow? If you spend a lot of time ducking in and out of the elements, you might want to grab some all-weather floor mats. They’re easy to clean and do a great job of keeping the muck in one place.
The sun’s rays can also wreak havoc on your car’s surfaces, causing vinyl to crack over time and materials to fade. A simple solution is to regularly put a sunshade on the windshield. They’re inexpensive and help to keep your interior looking new.
Saving money on repair work and cleaning comes more easily when you take the time to make preventative care a priority. Not only will these tricks make your car a nicer place to be, keeping grime out of your ride will cut down on large maintenance costs in the future and will help to retain its value over time.