It never ceases to amaze me how often I miss a simple comparison across technical boundaries. In this case, as someone who will happily unplug a computer, open it up and tinker around blindly with a screwdriver, I still freak a little when my car makes a weird noise.
Which got me to thinking: what if I approached my car the same way I approach my computers? With that goal in mind, I’ve put together the following list of 5 ways one could begin to be a car geek.
1. Read the technical manual for your car.
I’m not talking about the owner’s manual and the uninformative booklets that come with a new car and encourage you to take the car back to the dealership or the mechanic for every little problem. I mean the Chilton or Haynes manual that breaks things down into little steps and describes how to perform simple and advanced repair tasks. The one I’ve got covers routine maintenance as well as a total engine rebuild, and everything in between, complete with diagrams, images, and step-by-step instructions. And once I opened it, I realized it’s just like any other technical manual I’ve ever read. Maybe you don’t understand the complete workings of the internal combustion engine, BUT if you can read the entire O’Reilly library on frickin’ PHP (or whatever is your geek skill of choice), you can grok how certain parts of your car are inter-related.
2. Put your web surfing skills to automotive use.
Do a web search of typical car emergencies, and have a plan of attack for when it happens to your car. Car doesn’t start? Look into common symptoms. Oil light came on? Do a search for your car model and see if it’s really a problem or some kind of bug. [Editor's Note: If your oil light comes on, the first thing you should do is pull over and check the oil. Do your web research later!] Heard a weird hissing gurgling noise? Make a list of search terms that describe the problem, then search to see if it really is, say, a water pump issue.
When you hear about someone else’s car problems, find out how that might be applied to your model of car and come up with plans A and B if it happens to you. Find a users group or mailing list for your car, and “listen” in for a while, just like you would on any other mailing list. This builds up a technical arsenal for your car the same way you’d have a list of things to try with your computer or with a programming problem.
3. Keep a decent set of tools in the trunk.
Once upon a time, I got a flat tire and popped the trunk only to discover that the tire iron didn’t fit my tire bolts. Don’t let that happen to you! Here’s a starter list:
- a tire iron that actually fits
- a decent and sturdy car jack that has been tested on a lazy Saturday when it *isn’t* an emergency
- an adjustable wrench
Add a few rags and a pair of decent gloves so if you have to get under the hood, you can maneuver into the tight spots and not get yourself too greasy. Once you’ve added a few skills to your list of tasks that you can perform on your own car, add the necessary tools to your “road kit”.
4. Do your own low end maintenance.
Start with something small, like changing the wipers or brake lights, or checking and maintaining the right air pressure in your tires. Then work your way up to changing your own oil. Before you know it, you’ll be able to sub out battery cables if they look a little worn out. Just remember to read up on the problem first to make sure you’ve got a good plan of attack that will avoid any common pitfalls (e.g., reconnecting your spark plug cables in the proper order, etc.), then give it a shot.
5. When you *do* have to go to the mechanic, relax.
You’ve done your homework, and with knowledge comes confidence. How many times have you gone to the mechanic and just trusted what you were told was the problem? Well, now you’ll have more information *before* you go to the shop. The more you know about how your car is supposed to work, the better you’ll feel when it comes time to get work done and you have to pay someone to do it.
Think of this as the equivalent of running over to Best Buy to get some minor computer part and some smirky salesperson tries to tell you that your complete system is hosed and you need to buy a new Gateway laptop. You’d tell him thanks, but no thanks (or beat it, kid, you’re bothering me). You wouldn’t be uncomfortable because you *know* what you need and how it works. If you’ve got a mechanic who (a) will answer your questions without being condescending, and (b) can relate the problem to something else about the car that you already understand, you’ll feel much better about the whole deal. If your mechanic doesn’t do that, get another mechanic! If it helps, picture that mechanic in a Geek Squad outfit trying to sell you some virus scanning software for your Linux box.
Now, there are *true* car geeks out there. You who drive a thirty year old car because you rebuilt it yourself, or drive something brand spanking new because you had a hand in its design – my hat is off to you. If I’ve missed any starting steps, please let me know. I’m off to read the Haynes manual on my Tercel, because it looks like I’ve got a little hacking to do. Drop me a line at email@example.com and let me know how things go with your car hacking.