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Goof of the Month: Poltergeist Car Scares Owner

autoTRADER.ca logo autoTRADER.ca 2018-07-12 Justin Pritchard
Audi Lighting – Light Prototype© Lesley Wimbush Audi Lighting – Light Prototype

Welcome to Stories of the Mechanically Declined! Every month, we highlight a story or situation that reinforces the need for drivers and shoppers to understand their vehicle, how to maintain it, and how it works.

Research

This month’s story comes to us from John Kennard, an automotive technician in Mississauga, Ontario.

A customer bought a few-year-old used luxury hybrid from Kennard’s dealer about a year earlier. Over the past few months, the customer had begun experiencing random issues with various on-board electronics that were sporadic, hard to replicate, and had been getting worse.

Then, things started to get weird.

“One day, the locks stopped working properly,” says Kennard. “He’d lock the doors, and they’d unlock themselves a moment after. The power trunk even opened by itself at one point!

“Then, the navigation system and central screen kept crashing. The back-up camera worked, but only some of the time. He was seeing ‘SERVICE SYSTEM’ warnings appear at random, saying that there was a problem with his cooling system, some of the safety features, and the stereo. The big frustration came from the randomness of the problems – one day it was one thing, another day, it was something else.”

The customer figured his car was cursed, or that some electronic gremlins were causing the random and annoying issues that were increasing in intensity. This vehicle was only a few years old, and it was the customer’s first hybrid car. He attributed the problems to an overly complex vehicle, and started to regret buying a hybrid.

“Oh, he had had it. He wanted this car fixed so he could sell it, and said he would never buy a hybrid again.”

Things that Go Bump in the Night

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Kennard says that the customer’s final straw occurred at about 4 am a few nights before he angrily arrived at the dealership, when the car alarm went off, for no reason.

“He checked his security cameras in the morning and confirmed that the car wasn’t being tampered with or anything,” Kennard explains. “The alarm went off for no reason, woke up his family, and left him in a pretty sour state.

“When this gentleman showed up, he was very frustrated. He had been getting warning messages come and go in his computer screen and dash for weeks, but never came in, because they were random. He figured it was a fluke and kept driving.”

The customer reported random illumination of warning lights relating to various systems, including the headlight-levelling system, alarm system, braking and traction control system, and more.

Kennard understood the customer’s frustration, but he had a suspicion as to the cause of the issues which turned out to be correct.

“It was a hunch, but often, in newer cars, when we see a lot of problems like this, it can be caused by a weak battery.”

Kennard told the customer he’d perform a battery check on the vehicle, suspecting that it could be the cause of the issues.

“The battery check only takes a minute, and I have a little handheld device I can take out to the car, in the parking lot. The customer doesn’t even have to come into the shop. We don’t charge for this because it only takes a moment, and we like our customers to feel comfortable coming to us for any problem with their vehicle, big or small. We also do a battery check whenever a vehicle comes in for an oil change, too,” says Kennard.

The Tell-Tale Battery

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The battery check revealed that Kennard’s hunch was correct: the customer’s battery was on its way out.

Interestingly, the customer was unaware that his hybrid car had a conventional 12-volt battery at all. Hybrids use a big battery pack to drive the vehicle via an electric motor, but most also have a 12-volt battery, like any other car, to run the interior accessories and electronics.

“The customer didn’t know he had a battery that could be checked or serviced,” Kennard explains. “But most hybrids have a normal battery too, as well as the big one that drives the vehicle. In his defence, the battery in this vehicle isn’t under the hood, so a quick look around might make you think it doesn’t have one at all. In this case, the battery is actually in the trunk, behind some panelling.”

In modern cars with advanced electronics, a weak or dying battery can cause numerous random issues across many systems, as they’re not being supplied with enough power to function properly at all times.

“This can be fairly random, with a lot of variables,” Kennard says. “But this customer makes a lot of short trips, which can be hard on the battery since it doesn’t get to charge fully. Imagine the battery being drained more than it’s being charged, every time you drive it. Then, maybe you go on a longer drive, the battery charges more fully, and you have no problems for a while. But they’ll come back, usually. In some cars, a trouble code or warning is stored for a certain number of key cycles, too. So, if the problem is a fluke, the warning may go away after you turn the car off, and restart it, say, five times. There are a lot of variables.”

The customer asked if Kennard could simply disconnect and reconnect the battery to ‘reset’ all of the vehicle systems. Then, he’d go for a long drive to recharge the battery.

“That’s not a good idea,” Kennard explains. “This battery was unhealthy and needed to be replaced. Plus, you shouldn’t really be disconnecting and reconnecting the battery on this sort of vehicle, because that can cause problems, too. In fact, when I installed the new battery to the vehicle, there’s a certain procedure I had to follow to do it properly, to avoid problems.”

Happy Battery, Happy Car

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Kennard installed a new battery for the customer at a cost of about $225, and suggested the customer use a trickle charger to keep the battery healthy, by installing it whenever the vehicle wouldn’t be driven for more than a few days.

“I showed him how and where he could connect a trickle charger, and explained how it can keep the battery from degrading if it’s hooked up when he won’t be driving the car for an extended period. It’s all about keeping the battery happy: happy battery, happy car!” he adds.

Result? The customer’s numerous and random problems all disappeared with the installation of a new battery, and Kennard reports that the customer told him that he was now using a trickle charger regularly.

A final note: Kennard says his customer was baffled that the big hybrid battery in his vehicle wasn’t transferring power automatically to the conventional 12-volt battery when it was dying, assuming that it would do so.

Kennard explains, “Makes sense, I suppose – you’ve got one great big battery to drive the car, and a little one for everything else, in a car like this. But they don’t power each other or recharge each other. That’s just not how it works: they’re two totally different systems, and you need to care for both of them. The car won’t do it for you.”

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