Focus on The Vehicle: Safety Systems, Maintenance & MalfunctionsUpdated Sept. 30, 2020
Automobile design and technology has advanced considerably over the past century. Today’s passenger cars bear little resemblance to the first motor vehicles that appeared on our roadways over a hundred years ago. Modern vehicles are made up of countless moving parts and complex systems, designed to generate power, afford optimum control and protect occupants from the ever-present threat of collisions and crashes. This section is all about getting acquainted with your vehicle. By the time we’re done here, you will understand how your car’s essential features and systems operate, plus, you will know how to keep them in good working order.
You might be wondering what the point in all this is? After all, you are studying to be a driver – not a mechanic! Well, in order to drive efficiently and react to changing roadway conditions in a timely manner, you need to be extremely familiar with the internal and external layout of your car. Having a good connection with your vehicle will make you a better driver. That means understanding how the engine produces power, how the steering and suspension systems connect you to the roadway and, learning how to spot when something is not working as it should.
Let’s begin with a summary of the main topics covered in this section.
Our journey into the inner workings of your vehicle begins with an exploration of modern vehicle safety features, and how these technologies have evolved over the past few decades. If we were to ask you to identify one of your car’s safety features, you would probably name the seat belts, or possibly the airbags. While these features are certainly designed to protect you, they are by no means the only aspect of your car that has been built with safety in mind.
Automotive safety goes far beyond airbags, seat belts and similar restraints. Car manufacturers consider every aspect of a vehicle, from the dashboard materials and the steering column, to the frame and the position of the lights outside the vehicle. Each feature is designed with two questions in mind:
- How can this feature minimize the chances of a collision occurring? (e.g. making the steering column adjustable to afford the driver better control or positioning the headlights to be better seen by other road users).
- How can this feature reduce the severity of a collision which does occur? (e.g. padding the dashboard to reduce head injuries or reinforcing the frame to keep the passenger compartment intact).
- Learning about seat belts, airbags, child restraints, frame design, driver assistance systems and the myriad of other safety-oriented features built into your vehicle is an essential part of the driver’s education course. Primarily because, these systems and components only increase vehicle occupant safety when they are used as intended by the manufacturer. Take seat belts as an example: they save countless lives but are only effective when they are worn correctly.
Of course, many of your vehicle’s safety features are not designed to be “used” per se. Padded dashboards, crumple zones, safety glass, airbags and collapsible steering columns are simply there to protect you in the event of a collision and require no action from the driver or passengers. This is not strictly true. To be effective during a collision, each of these features depends on the occupants of the vehicle being in the correct place.
If you are too close to the steering wheel, slumped sideways against a window, or sat too low in the driver’s seat when a collision occurs, you will not be as protected as you would be when sat up straight, looking directly over the steering wheel and at a safe distance from the air bag deployment zone. Adopting the correct sitting position in the driver’s seat is one of the most important safety skills you will learn as a new driver.
The essential components
The second block in this section deals with essential vehicle components and controls. Cars are designed to be easy to maneuver safely but in order to achieve this, you need to know where everything is! We will start by helping you get acquainted with the outside of the vehicle. To communicate effectively with other road users and visualize how events around your vehicle will play out, you must have an awareness of the vehicle’s size and shape, the position of your lights and other key external features like the side-mirrors, wheels and tailpipe.
Your next job will be familiarizing yourself with the vehicle controls. This is a task you can perform without ever leaving the driver’s seat. Everything you need to turn the car on, change your speed, steer the vehicle, communicate with other motorists and operate the vehicle’s peripheral systems (wipers, stereo, air conditioning etc) is within arm’s reach of the driver’s seat. All the information you need while driving is visible from this position too. Check out the view through your windshield, the reflection of the roadway around the car through your mirrors and the gauges on the instrument panel in front of you. The lights and dials on the instrument panel may seem a bit confusing at this stage, but rest assured, our dedicated instrument panel break-down will talk you through these features.
When getting to know your vehicle’s essential features, your greatest asset will be the car owner’s manual. The information we provide is general and may differ slightly from the way your vehicle is laid out. While working through this section of the course, make sure you have the owner’s manual on hand to help you locate and identify important features and controls.
This section also serves as a gentle introduction to the layout of your engine compartment. As a driver and car owner, you do not necessarily need to be able to find your way around the engine, but you do need to know where to find a few essential components, like the motor oil dipstick, windshield wiper fluid reservoir and radiator cap.
Maintaining your vehicle
Our final block addresses everything you must know to keep your vehicle in a safe, drivable condition. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to:
Perform basic maintenance tasks (like cleaning, topping up motor oil and monitoring tire pressure)
Inspect the vehicle for signs of damage
Be vigilant for changes in the way the car handles or behaves (which may indicate a malfunction)
Have the vehicle serviced by a professional mechanic at appropriate intervals
While keeping on top of maintenance tasks and adhering to the service schedule outlined in your owner’s manual should prevent any serious system failures, it is important to remember that no car lasts forever. Keep in mind that major malfunctions usually start out as minor problems – this applies to all mechanical and electrical systems. You are your vehicle’s first line of defense against dangerous and expensive failures. You must understand how your car works well enough to be able to identify when something is not working. Then, if it is not a problem you can resolve, you can hand the issue over to a professional mechanic.
So, each module in this section will introduce you to a primary vehicle system. We will explore how that system works, what you can do to maintain it and common malfunctions to look out for. The systems covered are:
The engine powers the drive wheels.
The fuel system.
The fuel system supplies the engine with fuel.
The exhaust system.
The exhaust removes dangerous waste gases from the vehicle.
The electrical system.
The electrical system starts the engine and powers electrical components.
The steering and suspension system.
Steering and suspension allow you to control the direction in which the car travels and manages your connection to the road.
The braking system.
The brakes are used to slow down and stop the vehicle, or hold it in place when parked.
They connect you to the pavement, create traction and absorb impact from the road.
Understanding how these systems operate will enable you to look after your vehicle properly. You do not need to know how to clean out the fuel system, rotate the tires or even replace contaminated motor oil, however, you must be able to monitor fluid levels, keep the fuel tank topped up and inspect the vehicle’s component parts for early signs of wear. The best way to organize these tasks is to follow a periodic inspection schedule, as laid out in your owner’s manual.
As for the maintenance and repair activities which you cannot handle yourself, these must be tackled by a professional mechanic when you have the vehicle serviced. It is essential to be pre-emptive about vehicle servicing – do not wait for something to go wrong with the car before having it checked out. Booking your car in for a routine service once or twice a year (as recommended by the owner’s manual) will ultimately cost you less and be less inconvenient than having to get an emergency service because an essential system has failed.
Maintenance is a matter of safety
Following an inspection and servicing schedule will save you money and spare you the stress of a sudden system failure. Though, these are really just side benefits. Ultimately, the vehicle systems must be maintained in the interest of safety. If you allow your vehicle to fall into a state of disrepair, somewhere along the line, the features designed to protect you from collisions and crashes will start to fail. Automobiles are safer than ever before but none of their advanced technologies will protect you, if they are not used as intended and kept in good condition. Thankfully, looking after your vehicle is not rocket science!
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