Is car automation making us dumber?

This general philosophical question was prompted by the dilemma of “cartalkanne,” whose engine was prematurely toasted due either to oil sludging or lack of oil. The main factor in the engine’s demise seems to be anne’s reliance on the “oil life monitor” indicator on the dash, instead of regular visual checks of the dipstick, and reliance on the advice of her Quickie-Lube people that her synthetic oil could go 9k-12k miles between changes.

My humble opinion is that these oil life monitors are an example of an “improvement” whose unintended consequence is actually the exact opposite of what the inventor intended. The inventor of the oil life monitor no doubt intended to help the driver be aware of the condition of the engine oil, and be aware of when it’s time to change the oil. But in anne’s case, it seems to have given her a false confidence that the oil condition did not need to be checked visually. She relied faithfully on the OLM, never looked at the dipstick, and fried her engine.

This is a classic case of unintended consequences. Several useful and interesting books have been written about unintended consequences in engineering (as well as other fields). One I recommend is Edward Tenner’s “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.” I recommend it to anyone with a general interest in technology and sience. It reminds us that, despite our best intentions, whatever we do brings some unintended consequences, and in some cases they overwhelm our original intents.

I would also suggest that the OLM is similar to medical devices that seem to offer the doctor more information about the patient’s physical condition, and yet impede the doctor’s actual direct observation of the patient. Years ago, doctors relied heavily on stethoscopes, using their own ears to listen to the action of the patient’s lungs and heart. The stethoscope got the doctor “up close and personal” with the patient’s body, and skilled doctors could learn quite a lot about the patient’s condition from what he/she heard directly through the stethoscope.

Now, however, doctors rely less on the stethoscope. “Technology” like oil light monitors have intervened, making it less necessary for doctors to get up close and personal, and less likely that the average driver is going to check his/her dipstick.

Are we any healthier as a result, and will our engines be any healthier as a result of the oil life monitor? I believe not, and I suspect that the rate of engine failure will go up, not down, as people put too much faith in the OLM and neglect to use the best tools ever invented for checking the condition/quantity of engine oil: our own two eyes.

Is car automation making us dumber? - No.

Does it make people lazy, ignorant, and poor drivers - Yes.

What you described with the OLM is a mix of laziness and ignorance. People are too lazy to open the hood now and then to check the oil level, and ignorant about how it should look if they did.

I have a friend who I consider somewhat mechanical, and even he thought that if you used synthetic oil, you needed to use a different weight. Sigh.

It all comes down to education. Honestly, when in school was simple mechanical techniques taught? People have simply become more and more ignorant about mechanical principals as vehicles because more and more reliable. When they do break - then it’s the cars fault of course, not their own.

At a time when it is easier than ever to get an answer (internet), people seem to know everything about what their friends did in the last 10 minutes, and the phone they use, and nothing about the machine they spent $30K on.

Forty years ago you never assumed that your car would just start. The carb might flood, not be choked right, etc. When you shut it off, it might continue to run for a bit. Crude - but at least most people had some understanding of why - and what to do about it.

Heck, a recent survey of BMW 1-series owners found that 80% of them thought it was FWD. They don’t even know which end is powered. Idiots.

So - how do you make people curious to understand things they don’t “have” to?

OLM is a great invention. It gives the proper oil change interval based a drivers actual drivers habits.

However they dropped the ball in leaving out one important light. They need a oil level indicator to let the driver know when it is low.

Your two eyes are USELESS at determining condition of oil. Check the dipstick of a diesel vehicle after 500 miles first thing in morning its black. Check the oil of my 2005 Legacy turbo wagon at 4500 miles it golden yellow. However Subaru requires I change the oil every 3750 miles.

For you it’s a great invention, because you understand how it works and what it does. You also understand what it doesn’t do, i.e. tell you how much oil there is in the engine.

But what percentage of the driving population has your level of understanding as to how the OLM works, and what it does and doesn’t do? And what percentage understands that the OLM doesn’t even know whether the engine HAS any oil left in it? I’m guessing the percentage is pretty low.

As for my eyes being useless in determining oil condition, they’re actually pretty darn good at seeing sludge, or seeing that the level is low, either one of which destroyed cartalkanne’s engine, which was the reason for starting this thread.

Judging from this forum, most oil-related engine failures are not due to (invisible) oil breakdown. They’re due to conditions that could have been easily observed on the dipstick with the naked eye, i.e. (1) low oil level, or (2) gross oil contamination by coolant, etc.

I have yet to read a single complaint from someone whose engine seized because of an oil condition that wouldn’t have been obvious from looking at the dipstick.

These are just the latest in 100 years of improvements that have made us ‘dumber’. Started with the electric starter, electric lights, the automatic choke, transmission, cruise control, sealed joints, on and on. A car owner in 1910 had to be an accomplished mechanic.

I don’t wish for the ‘good old days’, just saying it’s a trend that keeps going, makers have to be sure that the systems work correctly and have the proper safeguards. I smell something wrong with ‘cartalkanne’ and her story, but no way to know from here…

There are several failures involved.

They could very easily be changed by the manufacturers adding a simple light on the car to tell the owner that their very expensive engine is 1 quart low. Put it next to the fuel gauge, and have it check the oil level every time the car is about to start. It’s as simple as that.

My Porsche Boxster has a 5 second count down after I get in the car, and turn the key to the ON position. During this 5 second count down, the oil level indicator does a status check on itself, and then reads the oil level. It then indicates on the dash how high or low the oil level is. Each bar on the dash equals about 5 ounces of oil. once you are down 6 bars, you know you are just about a quart low on oil.

The Boxster also holds 9 quarts of a very high quality synthetic engine oil.
This oil has to meet Porsche standards, and basically, the oils found in most stores won’t meet this criteria, at all.

The way I drive my car isn’t easy on the oil, either.
I typically will drive it up in the mountains when weather permits every week.
During the summer, my car and I spend some quality time at an actual racetrack, getting our groove on.
On top of that, I even use it to commute back and forth to work.

So I don’t bother with the original 10k mile recommendation that Porsche has for my year Boxster, I change it every 5k miles. But, I also check its oil level each and every time I start the car, since it is so easy for me to do.

So, the solution is pretty simple.
Auto manufacturers just need to put an oil level indicator on the dash, and have it check the oil level when the car is about to start. This would solve so many issues, and is so easy to do. It is a shame that only a couple of car companies do this, and only on a select few vehicle models, at that.


I really suspect that she didn’t understand that the OLM didn’t measure or detect anything. I think that she really didn’t ever check or top off the oil level. The real problem may be that the engine went many thousands of miles with only two or three quarts of oil left.

Well, that’s my point. I suspect there are a lot of drivers out there who don’t understand that “the OLM [doesn’t] measure or detect anything.”

I agree that there are a lot of poor drivers on the road today. Most people can’t even drive a standard shift vehicle. I don’t consider anyone a good driver until they can master a clutch and stick shift and roll down a window to cool off.

I had a pretty long and involved “discussion” with one of my 'ex’s some years ago. I explained that the engine in her olds was mounted in a way that was known as transverse (sideways). The explaination was not accepted and a walk out to the car and a hood opening was required. So much for the pratical knowledge that is part of the makeup of “farm people”

I suspect that there are a lot of drivers out there who would never check the oil level even without the OLM. It has nothing to do with the OLM. It’s something that just never occurs to some people. This is why I am very leary about buying a used vehicle (even if the previous owner followed the maintenance schedule).

I am constantly weighing the needs of being able to explain to my gf, or friends, or whomever about the more technical aspects of why whatever isn’t doing what it should, vs how much information I really need to provide in order to get my point across.

Left to my own devices, I just blather on about every last little detail, but with most people, they tune out the important information as soon as they no longer know what you are talking about.

Trying to describe why a transverse engine might be a better setup than a longitudinal setup wouldn’t be something I would bother trying to explain. I remember that conversation once. “Why is the belt on my PT Cruiser next to the right front wheel, but the belt is right behind the radiator on my Crossfire?” I think my simple answer was “That’s how they designed it”, and didn’t go any further than that. She probably would have brought up her old Subaru fwd car that had the engine longitudinally mounted if I had.


Back in 1965 or 1966, long before the advent of any modern electronic gizmos on cars, I got a really good look at how ignorant some folks can be regarding the car that they are driving. An acquaintance of mine picked me up in the brand-new Datsun sedan that his father had just bought. It was indeed a curiosity, simply because so few Japanese cars had reached the east coast of the US at that point. I found the little car interesting, even if it clearly had some design flaws and some assembly problems.

My friend decided to regale me with a list of the standard equipment on that Datsun.
I can’t recall all of those features of which he bragged, but one in particular has stuck in my mind all these years.
He proudly informed me that the car had “4-wheel brakes”!
Calmly, I replied–Doug, so does every other new car that has been sold in the US for the past 40 years or so.

He then amended his statement to, "well, it has hydraulic brakes on all 4 wheels!"
I replied that, with the exception of Ford and perhaps one or two other manufacturers, all cars sold in the US had been equipped with 4-wheel hydraulic brakes since at least the late 1930s. He, of course, declared that I was wrong and that Datsun was the only company that equipped its cars with 4-wheel hydraulic brakes!

As the years went on, I saw more and more examples of his lack of car savvy, but I just began to ignore his uninformed statements. That was much easier than getting into a battle of wits for which he was only half-equipped.

Or–how about the folks who owned some early Olds Toronados and mounted their snow tires on the rear wheels?

Or–how about the folks who I encountered back in my gas station attendant days, who drove around continually with the radiator cap loosened by one notch? When I attempted to tighten some of these caps, more than one car owner told me, “Don’t do that! It builds up lots of pressure if you tighten it!”

Unfortunately, you can’t fix stupid.
While electronic gizmos have undoubtedly made car owners less involved with the maintenance of their cars than previously, there have always been people who are convinced of the rightness of their wrong-headed notions.

Unfortunately, you can’t fix stupid.
While electronic gizmos has undoubtedly made car owners less involved with the maintenance of their cars than previously, there have always been people who are convinced of the rightness of their wrong-headed notions.

It seems like we’re trying to do that here every single day.
But its too late in most instances to save the poor car being destroyed by stupid.

Usually, the best we can do is convince people to change their behavior for the future.


I don’t even know what to say about the guy arguing the point with you in regards to how many brakes the car has and what controls them. Funny, tragic, or somewhere in between.

As to the OLM that is just more piling on of a problem that has been going on for decades. With the demise of full serve gas stations drivers are inclined to throw the gas in quickly and get out. The hood never comes up to check anything and going back decades many mechanics stated that this kind of thing was going to lead to ruined engines, transmsissions, etc due to neglect.

You mention people wanting the caps left loose and I’ve also run into that a number of times. One old lady used to insist the radiator be filled to overflowing even when I told her that after a few minutes of engine operation that coolant would expand due to heat and just get puked out into the overflow bottle. It mattered not; she knows more so run it over.

If one were to review the surveillance tapes from a self=serve station it’s highly unlikely that you would find even one person raising the hood during the course of a very long day.

I don’t consider anyone a good driver until they can master a clutch and stick shift and roll down a window to cool off.

Plenty of 16 yr old boys who can do both. Does that make them good drivers?

I don’t think automation is making us dumber. I have been driving since 72 and am probably representative of a greater majority of people who do not check oil on a regular basis. My average ownership of a car is probably 15 years per car. I do not say it is proper but I check the oil before I change it every 6 months to see if there is any loss, and depend on the oil pressure gauge or light, as an early warning system. I have never had an oil light or pressure drop that would cause me concern. Sure it is a great thing to do, but I wait til the low battery on the CO, and smoke detector beep before replacing them. Amazing I am alive and have a car at 115k that still works.

…and, that half-blind 88 year old woman driving her dented stick-shift '67 Chevy into obstacles must also be a superb driver!

Hmmm…Maybe she really is a superb driver but she is just perpetually distracted by having to crank those stiff window handles in order to roll down the windows.


My Bonneville And My Son’s Impala Have “Low Oil Level” Warnings, But We’ve Neve Illuminated Them.