Stop this stop-start madness
KUALA LUMPUR, June 4 — With ever more stringent emissions standards being put in place and increasing expectations of economy from customers, car manufacturers have been forced to find cleverer and cleverer ways of making the automobile sip less fuel and puff out less CO2 and all that greenhouse gas gubbins out its tailpipe.
Exhaust gas treatment systems have helped with the latter, with catalytic converters and particulate filters doing their best to scrub exhaust fumes clean before they exit the pipe at the end of your car.
The issue of fuel economy though is where the current industry focus is on. Making cars drink less fuel per kilometre has become the industry’s mission, seemingly, with even supercar manufacturers talking about fuel economy these days.
There are of, course, a variety of ways of making a car more economical. The Europeans have taken to the “downsize, then add a turbo” approach with a tenacity that beggars belief. Where three-litre in-line sixes used to reside, you’ll now find tiny two-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged mills powering limousine-sized cars.
The other approach that seems to be catching on is the inclusion of stop-start systems. Without going into boring details, this system allows cars to cut fuel consumption by cutting out the engine where it’s not needed — when you’re stopped in traffic, for example. With the car stationary and engine off, the car would use zero fuel, hence saving on that precious litre of hydrocarbons in the tank.
Now, I’m all for saving the planet and all that. I truly am. But after spending a day with a hybrid vehicle equipped with just such a system, I am now convinced that the auto stop-start system is the single most annoying bit of fuel-saving kit ever to be put on this Earth.
In concept, in some lab somewhere in Japan or Germany or the US of A, wherever this piece of green annoyance was created, I’m sure it sounded brilliant. After all, one can’t argue with the logic. When a car is stationary, it shouldn’t have to burn any fuel. Therefore, cutting out the engine would seem a brilliantly simple means of achieving that goal.
Except it’s anything but brilliant in execution.
Firstly, it must be realised that most of a car’s auxiliary systems rely on the engine to power them. The power steering pump, the air-conditioning, the alternator… the list goes on. Unless these components are engineered to be electrically powered by the car’s battery, stop-start essentially cuts the source of power to these systems when it’s operational. No engine, no power, no auxiliary systems.
So your power steering goes on a walkabout. Your brakes, which rely on engine vacuum to boost braking pressure, go numb. Your alternator stops, so the tiny battery in the boot ends up powering everything from your audio system to the headlights.
As you can imagine, it’s diabolically annoying to coast to a red light, stop and then have the engine die on you, along with any semblance of cold air from the air-conditioning. Sure, the blower still spews out air from the dashboard vents, but it’s anything but cold.
After just a minute or two the interior does a very good impersonation of an oven. You may be saving the Earth, but in traffic, in the sweltering heat of a typical Malaysian afternoon, I’d rather have my car spew out bags of CO2 than die of a heatstroke.
Perhaps, more noticeably, stop-start systems, no matter how good, are anything but imperceptible in operation. Foot on the brake, the engine cuts out. With a shudder. Foot off the brake and the engine coughs back to life. With a shudder. It’s just bloody annoying if you’re stuck in stop-start traffic and your car persistently shudders every few seconds.
I also can’t help but think about the longevity of the starter motor and engine itself. On average, I use the starter on my car less than 10 times a day. Once to head to work, two when I need to head out for lunch and back, once more to get myself home and perhaps one last start of the day to get me out to dinner and back. On the hybrid I was driving, the engine stopped and started as many times in under 20 minutes while I was making my way through traffic going up the Bangsar hill. It was epically annoying.
Traffic stops. Engine cuts. With a shudder. Air-conditioning stops. Cabin gets stuffy. I curse the engineers who put this system in.
Traffic starts moving again. Foot off the brake. Engine starts. With a shudder. Gawd, this car needs better engine mounts. Air-conditioning starts again. Hallelujah! But I’m still cursing.
Twenty minutes into the drive I did the best thing I could think of. I hit the button marked “ECON” to put the car OUT of its stop-start misery. The drive thereafter was infinitely more polluting, but perhaps, more importantly, turned a frustrating battle with eco-tech into a peaceful commute to and from lunch. As it should’ve been.
The worrying thing about this stop-start annoyance is that it is a feature that’s becoming standard for most cars coming out of Europe. Almost every car BMW makes has this feature. And VW has expressed its intentions to make it standard on every car they make. Crikey.
I can only hope that when they do make this stop-start insanity standard, they also include an “OFF” switch to keep the engine obediently running when I’m stopped at the lights.