Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Jackass Award/When Engineers Get Bored

2006 BMW 323i engine bay

Quick - can you spot the engine oil dipstick in the engine bay of this 2006 BMW "E90" 323i?

Tick, tock, tick, tock...

Trick question: there isn't one.

This is a combined "When Engineers Get Bored" and "Jackass Award" entry, because there was no real reason to eliminate the dipstick.

Although quite a good number of automatic transmissions have gone stick-less in the past decade or so, unless they're leaking, they don't consume fluid. Engines do. Engines also have their oil replaced fairly frequently. Transmissions? In a perfect world, not so much.

Bored BMW engineers obviously felt that they could save a few dollars by using electronics and sensors to replace the engine oil dipstick. Oh, wait, that actually wouldn't be cheaper, now would it?

So why do it? Good chance it will drive up service department business, I would have to think. Sure, it does keep the customer from having to open the hood and potentially get dirty checking their oil, but has that really been a problem for the last 120 years? I doubt it.

Eliminating the dipstick becomes a problem when a vehicle that is known to consume oil, and which has crazy-long service intervals that almost guarantee the need to add oil between changes (BMW actually sells an accessory spare oil bottle holder for the trunk for this purpose) then has no practical way of quickly and easily determining the oil level.

Or does it?

As it turns out, it does, kind of. In a bored engineer sort of way.

2006 BMW 323i oil level indicator. Yes, it's in the trip computer.

Built in to the trip computer is an oil level check function. Certain criteria have to be met (engine temperature, engine run time, etc.) before it will display the level, and - counter-intuitively - it has to be running to check the level. Doing an oil change? Better know how much oil this thing holds beforehand, because you're committed once you begin - you can't check the level until you start it.

If memory serves, the "min" and "max" indications are not 1 litre (quart) apart, as on most cars and trucks, either. No owner's manual? No service information? No familiarity? You're fairly much euchred. And that's if you can parse out the secret to activating this display in the first case.

Having something that warns the driver of a low oil level is no bad thing on its own. Sometimes we need to have our hands held for us, and excessively low engine oil is an expensive "oops". I'm more than OK with building that function in.

But eliminating as simple, effective, and cheap of a maintenance device as a dipstick is pointless at best, and it's a quick way to earn yourself a Jackass Award.

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