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Automotive myths: Busted!

The author Greg Engle with Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage
The author Greg Engle with Mythbusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage
Greg Engle

If you’ve been around cars as long as I have you’ve heard more than one. I refer to the myths that abound in the automotive world. From maintenance to driving to fuel mileage there are seemingly more automotive myths then there are Prius sedans prowling the roads of L.A.

I have been a huge fan of Discovery Channels Mythbusters, starring Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage since the very beginning; I was beyond thrilled when I got to meet the duo and spend some time with them. They were both very down to earth and personable. we spent some time talking about myths, a subject I’ve had an interest in all my life. That’s due in large part to the fact that for all my life I’ve hated seeing people get caught up in believing something is true when it’s actually not. Also being a psychologist (yes kids I have a life outside of cars) I’ve also found it fascinating how the human mind works; how a normally sane rational person could believe something that’s simply not true.

So here are some of the automotive myths I’ve heard through the years; none are plausible, all are BUSTED (except one).

Myth: Sugar poured into a gas tank will ruin an engine.

BUSTED: In fact sugar won’t dissolve in gasoline. In 1994 Berkeley Forensics professor John Thornton mixed sugar with gasoline and spun the concoction in a centrifuge. The results showed that very little sugar had broken down into the gooey substance the myth purports will gum up an engine. Sure, the un-dissolved sweet stuff could mix with the small amount of condensation that is present, and enough of anything granular poured into a gas tank could make its way into the system, but the myth that any amount of sugar in a gas tank will gum up the works is false.Myth: The higher the octane the more horsepower.

BUSTED: Engine compression ratio is what dictates your octane rating, not your need for speed. Truth is the octane rating for gas has nothing to do with the power you can get out of it. What the octane rating really relates to is how much a fuel can be compressed before the ignition cycle takes place. A higher number means the fuel will be less likely it is to ignite under pressure. Highly paid engineers complete with pocket protectors have been paid a lot of money to design engines that are tuned to a specific octane, so using the wrong octane will actually cause your engine to run less efficiently and can cause knocking and pinging. Let your owner’s manual be your guide, use the recommended octane and add a supercharger or buy a Ferrari if you want to go faster.

Myth: Manual transmissions will give you better fuel economy than automatic ones.

BUSTED: There was a time, when dinosaurs and big Chevy’s prowled the earth that shifting on your own meant fewer trips to the gas station. Sadly recent technological advances in transmissions, such as smother shifting sensors, better ratios and the very efficient continuously variable transmission have put an automatic transmission’s fuel mileage on par with, and sometimes better than, that we can get with the manual. In fact there is some hushed discussion in automotive circles that someday soon the manual transmission won’t even be offered or will be very hard to find. Yes, I know they are far more fun, but alas no longer can we use the “but honey it gets better gas mileage” argument.

Myth: Using your cellphone while fueling can out you at risk for triggering an explosion.

BUSTED: For this one we turn to my old friends the Mythbusters, okay so we aren’t actually buds even though I did meet them, but they did put this myth to test and found that no matter the circumstance talking on your cellphone while fueling won’t put you at risk for causing an explosion.

In fact those watchdogs of the airwaves, the Federal Communications Commission conducted an investigation and found no documented proof that a wireless phone has ever caused a fire at a gas pump. You do have a risk of causing a fire via static electricity if you get into than out of your car while fueling, but not while talking to your BFF on the phone.

Myth: You have to get a regular tune up to keep your car running at its best.

BUSTED: There was time when this was true; points, and plugs needed changing and adjusting and your timing needed checking on a regular basis, usually once a year. However, on newer cars, those built in the 1990s to today none of the old adjustments apply. The only reason you would need a tune up today is due to following the manufacturers recommendations for changing plugs and belts, or if your “check engine” light comes on. Other than oil changes, there is actually very little maintenance that needs to be done under 60,000 miles, most spark plugs today don’t even need changing until 100,000 miles. Always let your owner’s manual be your guide. One last note: if you get pitched other routine maintenance services like fuel injector cleaning or a radiator flush by your local service facility while you are having a recommend service done, politely say no and ask them if they can change the channel on the TV in the waiting room. Most fuels today have detergents that will keep you injectors clean and with the chemical advances in radiator fluids, there is no need to change them on a regular basis.

Myth: A dirty air filter can hurt your fuel mileage.

BUSTED: Along the same lines of being pitched things you don’t need on your car, a dirty air filter will not result in lower fuel mileage on today’s cars. Today there are electronic systems that use such things as a mass air flow sensor and computer controls to get the proper air-fuel ratio. A dirty air filter has no effect on these systems that can adjust to ensure the right ratio is always present.

Myth: Filling up in the morning or at night when it’s cooler will result in getting more fuel.

BUSTED: This myth says that when fuel is cooler it’s denser, thus you actually get a bit more in the same amount of space than you do when it’s hot. The truth is that the tanks where fuel is stored have to be between 15-20 feet below the surface where the temperature hardly fluctuates; usually staying around 50-60 degrees.

Myth: Driving your pick-up truck with the tailgate down will give you better fuel mileage.

BUSTED: For this one we turn once again to Jamie and Adam. The Mythbusters found that despite what their initial tests showed concerning airflow, leaving a truck’s tailgate up actually results in better fuel mileage. They took to the road in identical trucks, one with the tailgate up and the other down. Under identical conditions the truck with the tailgate down ran out of fuel first; the tailgate up truck went another 30 miles. In a later episode, they found that the most fuel efficient method was the use of a mesh in place of a tailgate.

Myth: BMW drivers are less courteous than other drivers.

PLAUSIBLE: We’ve all heard that those who drive BMW’s and the like are more snobbish and less inclined to be a friendly driver. Well it seems that there has been some scientific research to back this claim up. A story in the New York Times reports that Paul K. Piff, a researcher at the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley conducted a study linking bad driving habits with wealth.

He set up an experiment at a crosswalk and at a four way stop. In California, where the experiment was conducted, motorists are required to stop for someone in a crosswalk. He then observed which cars would stop for someone crossing and which ones didn’t; the observations were recorded for 152 cars. At the four way stop, observers noted which cars jumped ahead of others who were there first over the course of a week. Piff (I love that name) classified cars as a “1” signifying them to be low value “beaters” to “5” or high value cars such as BMW’s or Mercedes-Benz.

Piff noted a ratio of about eight of every 10 cars that “did the right thing.”

“But you see this huge boost in a driver’s likelihood to commit infractions in more expensive cars,” he said. “In our crosswalk study, none of the cars in the beater-car category drove through the crosswalk. They always stopped for pedestrians.”

As for the four way stop:

“One of the most significant trends was that fancy cars were less likely to stop,” said Piff, adding, “BMW drivers were the worst.”

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