Driver’s Ed

We’ve got auto questions, leading authorities have answers
Illustrations by Joe Ficorelli

With harsh, mid-winter Michigan weather conditions upon us and the annual North American International Auto Show getting underway, it’s a time of year when auto-related matters are top of mind for residents of the Motor City. Your car may be having a tough time — especially if you haven’t remembered some routine maintenance rules. Or, perhaps you’re in the market for a new vehicle. Whatever your concern, we turned to a panel of experts to come up with answers to Hour Detroit readers’ questions on everything from maintenance to mass transit.

What maintenance is critical to prepare my vehicle for winter? 

— Tim Summers, via Facebook

“The number one thing is to check your tire pressure once a month,” emphasizes Lauren Fix, the syndicated “Car Coach.” She says this will help “get better traction, better life of the tire and, best of all, better fuel economy. Use the numbers on the sticker inside the driver’s door and not what’s on the tire.” Make sure your windshield-wiper blades work properly and that you have a full reservoir of washer fluid. Ensure your battery is up to snuff. If it’s old or cranks slowly, replace it. And have a service shop make sure you have enough of the right type of antifreeze. Also, check engine belts to make sure they’re tight and not fraying, suggests Fix. If there’s a “check-engine” light lit, address it before the weather gets bad. Finally, pack an emergency kit with hand warmers, flares, and warm clothing.

When will there be reliable public transportation?

— @gruzphotography, via Instagram

“Never,” says John McElroy, host of Autoline TV. “Seriously, never.” While voters recently approved funding for Fairfield and Suisun Transit (FAST) commuter buses, money for a broader, regional transit system has been voted down. That said, David Andrea, an independent transportation consultant and former executive at the Center for Automotive Research notes automakers like Ford Motor Co. are spending billions developing fully driverless vehicles that could soon drop the price of ride share services like Lyft, Uber, Waymo, and others to the point they’re cheaper than owning a car and likely more convenient than traveling via bus or train. Ride sharing services are predicted to account for an increasing percentage of the miles we clock on the road in the coming years.

Why no HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes?

— @em.zalewski, via Instagram

One reason: “the dispersion of our jobs” explains Miller. “But that may change as Detroit becomes a major job center again.” There are also other factors at play. Most Detroit-area freeways are too narrow to create dedicated car pool lanes, but that may soon change, too. Look for HOV lanes when the makeover of I-75 north of Eight Mile Road is completed, and possibly along a widened I-94. A stretch of U.S. 23 near Ann Arbor can switch one of its lanes for HOV use, as well.

What’s up with E85 corn fuel? I thought it was supposed to be better for the environment but I’ve heard it’s actually bad for it.

— Danny Runey, via Facebook

Ethanol is a topic generating heated debate. Proponents contend it reduces demand for foreign oil. One reason automakers have favored vehicles that can run on E85, or 85 percent ethanol, is that they get extra credits towards meeting federal mileage standards. But “it takes seven bushels of corn to produce one gallon of ethanol,” notes Fix, adding that this gobbles up farm resources. While modern vehicles can run on ethanol-blended gasoline, she says, first make sure your car can run on E85. And some older gas-powered tools, like leaf blowers, may not run properly on even standard gas-ethanol blends without special additives. To be safe, former Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette says to “have the vehicle inspected by an independent, competent automotive technician who has no relation to the seller. Since water damage can be hard to spot, paying an expert mechanic for an inspection is a good idea.”

Why does Michigan have the highest truck weight limit in the nation by more than 40 tons — and why isn’t that increase in demand for road repairs being adequately met by State funds?

— Mark Dorrell, via Facebook

Michigan does have the highest truck weight limit in the nation, but the number is closer to 17,000 lbs than 40 tons. That said, the credit — or blame — is “a powerful and effective truck lobby,” McElroy says. But there’s also the fact that we’re a major manufacturing state and industries want to hold down shipping costs. Whether these extra-heavy trucks ruin Michigan roads is a matter of debate. “The reality is, we just haven’t maintained our roads,” McElroy contends.

Why don’t state, county, and city leadership coordinate projects to prevent the majority of north-south or east-west roads from having construction at the same time?

— Jeremy Leland, via Facebook

“We make every effort to coordinate with county and local agencies,” says Michael Frezell, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation. That includes a weekly meeting for the metro region “where we coordinate projects to ensure taht we are not crippling the entire region.” Construction projects are timed, wherever possible, to have a minimal impact on traffic. But, Frezell adds that’s not always possible. One example is the Mound Road project off I-696, which had a specific schedule because it was federally funded. “The key point here is that after decades of underfunding, there are so many needs that agencies at all levels are doing the best they can to keep their systems operating.”

Are leases really a better financial option than buying a car outright?

— Kayla Porvaznick, via Facebook

That depends upon a variety of factors, including the number of miles you drive each year. Drive less than 10,000 miles a year and most experts say you’re better off buying — as are those who want to pay off the car and keep it long-term. Leases are usually a great deal if you’ll clock 12,000 to 15,000 miles annually. You can negotiate a discount on additional miles, but expect to pay a hefty premium if you don’t do that before turning the car back in. There’s a new option some manufacturers are offering: a subscription. Details vary among brands but the common thread is that these deals cover essentially everything, from insurance to maintenance, for a fixed price. But expect to pay more than you would for a conventional lease.

How did Michigan end up with no-fault insurance?

— @kamraobscura, via Instagram

“The Michigan No-Fault Law went into effect in 1973 to increase the level of benefits paid to injured persons, make sure such payments were made promptly, and reduce the proportion of premium dollars paid out for litigation costs,” explains Andrea Miller, public information officer with the Michigan Department of Insurance and Financial Services. McElroy points out, “those who get seriously injured are fully covered but the cost of lifetime catastrophic coverage has driven up [premiums],” resulting in Michigan having the highest auto insurance rates in the country. “Without reducing the scope of coverage,” adds Miller, “we can’t reduce the premiums.” Strong bipartisan support has for the most part stymied efforts to revise the system.

What has the state done to prevent the resale of storm-damaged vehicles?

— @madeinthemit, via Instagram

Like many other states, Michigan marks the title and record of vehicles damaged by flooding and other natural disasters — not all states, however, have implemented this practice. Con artists taught us a deceiving trick called “title-washing,” moving damaged vehicles to states where such details are dropped. Most auction houses and car dealers now verify they haven’t gotten a flood-damaged vehicle. Fix says you’re most likely to get one from an individual seller, especially one you may not know. Schuette recommended, in an August 2018 advisory, checking the VIN (vehicle identification number) “through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System database” run by the United States Department of Justice. “Some consumers also choose to trace vehicle history using commercially available reports such as Experian’s Auto Check or CarFax.”

When are we actually supposed to merge when a lane ends? Early or at the last second? Which is better for traffic and why?

— Katie Wilson, via Facebook

Many drivers merge as soon as possible and even try blocking cars speeding by in the merge lane. But, according to transportation research website, the best way to merge is the “zipper method.” It may be counterintuitive, but calls for drivers to open a gap as they reach the point where the entering traffic lane ends. That way, traffic flows smoothly, much like a closing zipper.