A friend noted a private conversation she had at home with her husband. They were talking about a unique project related to his job. Not long afterward, even though she never mentioned the project to anyone else, nor had she heard of it before, an advertisement for that very project appeared on her Facebook feed. Someone was listening.
Someone is listening in on your car too. Well, maybe not listening, but monitoring. And maybe not someone but something: your car’s computer checking in on the condition of your oil. Many auto manufacturers now include an oil life monitoring system that keeps track and signals when it is time to change the oil in your engine.
Oil change intervals before Big Brother
Until recently, the way to determine when it was time to change your oil was to do one of two things. You could follow conventional wisdom that suggested an oil change every three thousand miles or you could check your owner’s manual for the manufacturer’s recommendation.
The old three-thousand-mile myth stemmed from a time when engines were made to, shall we say, less specific tolerances, and engine oil was less capable than it is today. The myth still persists, in large part, because quick oil shops who benefit from the advice perpetuate it.
That said, if you check your owner’s manual to see what the vehicle manufacturer has to say about the oil change interval for your engine, you might be surprised. The shortest time between oil changes under normal operating conditions by any automaker today is five thousand miles. Some suggest an interval far beyond that – upwards of ten thousand miles. However, if you look at the fine print, many (if not most) drivers operate their cars not under “normal” conditions but “special” or “severe” conditions.
What do those “special” conditions look like? Interestingly, they include stop-and-go traffic, driving on dusty or dirt roads, low-speed driving for a long distance, extensive idling, repeated trips under five miles in the cold, and more. These “special” conditions look a whole lot like normal rush hour traffic.
And what is the recommendation to keep up with oil changes under such conditions? Something closer to three thousand miles.
The new normal
Since many drivers find themselves in these “special” driving conditions at least part of the time (you can add towing, car top carriers, and hauling heavy loads to the list as well), and not in such conditions at other times, how is one to know how long oil will last in an engine?
Enter the oil life monitoring system, or OLM. This is a system that signals a driver through a light on the dashboard or a message on the driver information system display. It is triggered by the engine’s computer (Engine Control Module, or ECM) and helps to remind you not to skip an oil change.
OLMs are not entirely new. They have been in service on some vehicle makes and models since the eighties, but they have been phased in slowly. Early versions were pretty simple (some still are) and merely kept track of the number of miles a vehicle was driven. With this distance-measuring system, the computer alerts you when the next milestone is reached. Once you change the oil, you reset the system and it begins counting miles again. This type of system is still in use in many vehicles (Toyota and Hyundai are two examples) and assists a driver in adhering to the manufacturer’s routine maintenance schedule.
But constant improvements in engine technology, manufacturing processes, engine management systems (computers), lubricant technology, and even requirements of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have led to not only extended oil change intervals, but varied ones.
Modern engine oils, for example, have special additives that prevent sludge formation, protect against engine wear, and prevent corrosion. Add to that advanced refining abilities (or more, the ubiquity of synthetic motor oil products) and you have motor oil that is capable of far more than a few thousand miles of service. Today’s engines often come with the recommendation to change the oil at five-, eight-, ten-thousand mile increments or more.
Engine oil is capable of lasting longer – sometimes a lot longer – than in the past. An old-school OLM serves as an aid, a reminder when it is time for an oil change.
A brave new world of monitors
And yet, we know that driving conditions play a large role in the life of motor oil. Mileage alone does not determine the condition or life of the oil in an engine. Vehicle manufacturers know this too. So, more advanced forms of OLMs have been developed. General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford each produced software-based systems that use complex algorithms to predict when the oil will need to be changed in their engines. Factors such as the number of engine revolutions and the operating temperature are used in the prediction. Using this information and data collected from a number of sensors on an engine, this system adjusts the oil change interval based on operational characteristics, climate conditions, and driving habits.
Other manufacturers (namely VW/Audi) use an OLM that does more than predict. Their system is different in that it uses sensors to determine the amount of oil in the engine and measure its temperature continuously when the engine is operating. This can take into account the stress placed upon the additives in the oil that might make them break down sooner when the temperatures rise or the oil level drops below the full mark.
Still other companies go beyond counting miles, mining data with a computer algorithm, and monitoring the temperature and level of the oil. BMW and Mercedes-Benz take OLM technology to yet another level by measuring the condition of and detecting contaminants in the oil. They do this with the help of special sensors that detect characteristics of the oil (such as the increase in acidity or the change in dielectric properties as oil wears out or becomes contaminated).
The end result of these smarter OLMs is that a driver can keep oil in an engine until it is nearing the end of its useful life rather than discard it before its time. Relying on old time-based, mileage-based formulas for changing the oil does one of two things. It leads either to throwing away oil with significantly more life left, or it leads to driving around with old oil that is no longer doing its job. An OLM that monitors oil conditions allows you to travel, say, five thousand miles in one set of driving conditions and eight thousand in another.
Nevertheless, no matter what type of OLM is featured in your vehicle – from mileage-based systems to condition-monitoring systems – a few principles should be noted. For one, OLMs have no way to detect if you have used inferior or cheap oil in your engine. Use quality motor oil that meets or exceeds your vehicle manufacturer’s recommendation. And when it comes to that recommendation, be sure to use the right fluid, to stick with the proper type and weight of oil that your engine was designed to use. Finally, the responsibility for keeping your car maintained does not belong to a computer; it is yours. OLMs can be trusted, but it is up to you to change the oil on time.
Yes, your car may be monitoring what goes on inside the engine, but its aim is to help you discern the best time for maintenance. As for Siri and Alexa? Well, who knows what their intentions might be.
Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright
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