Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: I Don't Like Your Tone – Some Thoughts on In-Cabin Audible Warning Devices

Phil Coconis
by Phil Coconis

Since we were on the subject of electronic and computerized vehicle protection systems, it seemed like a logical move to begin a discussion of another long-standing and not universally beloved vehicle subsystem—this one ostensibly purposed to save us from ourselves, or at least our vehicles from “the nut behind the wheel”.

To say that the technologies employed in this quest have had mixed results, at best, would lean a little toward the generous side.

What started as often a very rudimentary electric buzzer, activated by just a couple of critical conditions related to door and ignition key position, eventually morphed into an exhaustive array of monitored components—each with their very own distinctive tone!

We now have warnings for everything from low tire pressure and vital fluid levels to electrical system malfunction, and most anything one can think of in between. It got so complex, manufacturers finally lumped all of these monitored systems into one centralized display with one tone, and a lighted digital display listing the offending components, circuits or subsystems. With a mighty ding (or dong) you would then be reminded of low windshield washer fluid level, how many miles until an empty fuel tank or until the next recommended oil service, the need to have other routine maintenance performed, or a host of other less-than-life-threatening events in progress every time you started off for a drive.

There were also a lot of interesting—if not obnoxiously implemented—detours and dead-ends along the way, too.

From my perspective as a technician and shop owner, the big crux with these devices has been: How critical they are to the to the actual operation of the vehicle, and how easy they are to be defeated—as in SILENCED.

In the kinder and gentler days of yore, the tacky and equally volumetric warning buzzer could be accessed with ease—sometimes without even removing the lower dash panel—and simply unplugged; with no untoward results to the rest of the vehicle. Disconnecting, or otherwise rendering an interior audible warning device inoperative on a modern vehicle is pretty much the polar opposite.

A friend of mine recently acquired a relatively late-model M/Benz E320, and came to hate the in-cabin warning buzzer (yes, they have come full-circle, apparently, with regard to employed tone) almost immediately. He’s a pretty tolerant guy, so when he described the aggravation he was experiencing with this work of the Devil, I understood why he just had to take an immediate time-out and silence the thing. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what he was getting into when he started dismantling the dash, piece by piece, until he zeroed in on the exact location of the offending unit. It turned out to be soldered into—as in being a completely integrated component part of—the instrument cluster electronic motherboard! After careful consideration of the ramifications of his next move, he went the B.F.I.

(Brute Force and Ignorance) route and CRUSHED it with a pair of slip-joint pliers!

From my objective standpoint, that sounded like a risky move. What if such an action inhibited some other essential process from being accomplished? It would have been hard to correct the damage done, and another motherboard would have to be sourced—complete with fully operational warning buzzer! Talk about potential for adding insult to injury!

Fortunately, the only effect of his action was the desired one; and several hours later, he was able to experience newfound sanity from behind the wheel.

Not that all attempts at in-cabin warning devices have been equally useless. There have been a few exceptions, in my opinion. The manufacturer often referred to them as a “chime”—a term that actually had some merit.

Who could forget the “tinkle-tinkle” that wafted pleasantly from behind the dash of earlier Subaru models? So pleasant as to be missing a sense of urgency that might have actually been appropriate, it was.

Or how about the key-in door-open three-note melody that earlier VW models came equipped with. It was the first three notes of the English Hunting Call, for heaven’s sake! That seemed like a very positive way to encourage the driver to get in and get on with it.

Then, of course, what I consider the crowning achievement of audible warning-dom: The synthesized vocal warning! A customer of mine referred to the “voice” in his Chrysler K-Car as “Guido”—a sarcastic take on the nickname of the then-President of Chrysler.

I think auto manufacturers really missed a great opportunity by not running a little more with the vocal warning. Yeah, “Guido” was a fairly boring take; but why stop there and say that’s as good as it gets? Why not offer a wide variety of voices and approaches to warning the driver? Want to be reminded to shut the door by a caricature nagging female voice, saturated with attitude? Might even prompt the driver to open the door at odd times just to hear her “go off”! Not your cup of tea? How about a sexy male voice telling you that you’ve forgotten to turn off the headlights? You might find yourself leaving them on purposely just to see if he still cares enough to remind you, yet again—without a hint of impatience!

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  • Phil Coconis Phil Coconis on Dec 14, 2012

    All of this dialog tends to prove the worth of vehicles like my '97 Suzuki TL 1000 S/R: 150 HP, 400 lbs., equally formidable brakes; and the only on-board computer is for limited engine management function (F.I. and Ignition). All other computerized functions, such as ABS, Traction Control, Stability System--and yes, even audible warnings--are a function of the processor housed between my ears. That's probably as close to road-going Vehicular Freedom as one can get these days!

  • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Dec 18, 2012

    Several observations: 1. My vote for worst buzzer has to be the ones in late-'70s to early-'80s GMs--those things could wake the dead!!!! (Close second is the noises made by the starter relays in most late-'60s to early-'70s cars--of all makes--with the first steering column-mounted ignitions--those things scared the living sh-- out of me as a youngster, to the point where I dreaded seatbelt and ignition buzzers of ANY type until into my teens!) In the early '80s, GM put a steady tone in the place of that obnoxious buzzer (1983 Buicks, like my Mom's Regal Sedan, but could have been earler--I may have read that '81 Grand Prixs were so-equipped). On smaller GMs, like my second car, a 1984 Pontiac Sunbird, there was one buzzer for seatbelt and key (unlike the bigger cars I mentioned above before they got the tones, and which had a separate, softer buzzer for the belts--you could hear both buzzers at once with the driver's door open at startup), and it was much less ear-shattering and nerve-rattling. 2. The Tempo/Topaz "bong-bong" chime has a weird "elegance" about it--not really obnoxious. The warning tones in today's Fords are an absolute abomination, especially that wussy three-note tone for the key warning! Just my $0.02--no flame wars, please! 3. Honda stepped up their game with the new Accord, but one of the little "unique" Honda touches was the little five-beep key tone, which Honda has removed in the recent redesigns, at least of the Accord and Civic. The new tones for the key and seatbelt aren't '71 Olds-bad (the starter-relay-generated noise I mentioned, called a sound "like a hillside full of nauseous goats" by legendary car-tester Tom McCahill (sp?)), or even '78-Olds bad (the loud, wake-the-dead key buzzer), but they don't have the "Honda-ness!" As for the "Belt Minder" in the Hondas, you have the normal light and beeper at startup, but if you let the car sit at idle w/o buckling up (unlike in Fords), you don't get the "Minder" warning, and the warning only activates over a certain speed, so you can move the car slowly if needed; stopping the car seems to reset the "timer"--I've moved my car from one end of a mall parking lot to the other w/o buckling up or having the Minder activate by doing this. However, unlike the Fords (which have a "twist-the-key-while-facing-east-and-standing-on-your-head" procedure," or maybe through some sort of Setup menu), the Honda Belt Minder CAN'T be totally disabled.

  • 56m65711446 Well, I had a suburban auto repair shop in those days.
  • Dukeisduke Yikes - reading the recall info from NHTSA, this sounds like the Hyundai/Kia 2.4l Theta II "engine fire" recall, since it involves an engine block or oil pan "breach", so basically, throwing a rod:"Description of the Safety Risk : Engine oil and/or fuel vapor that accumulates near a sufficiently hot surface, below the combustion initiation flame speed, may ignite resulting in an under hood fire, and increasing the risk of injury. Description of the Cause :Isolated engine manufacturing issues have resulted in 2.5L HEV/PHEV engine failures involving engine block or oil pan breach. In the event of an engine block or oil pan breach, the HEV/PHEV system continues to propel the vehicle allowing the customer to continue to drive the vehicle. As the customer continues to drive after a block breach, oil and/or fuel vapor continues to be expelled and accumulates near ignition sources, primarily expected to be the exhaust system. Identification of Any Warning that can Occur :Engine failure is expected to produce loud noises (example: metal-to-metal clank) audible to the vehicle’s occupants. An engine failure will also result in a reduction in engine torque. In Owner Letters mailed to customers, Ford will advise customers to safely park and shut off the engine as promptly as possible upon hearing unexpected engine noises, after experiencing an unexpected torque reduction, or if smoke is observed emanating from the engine compartment."
  • Dukeisduke In an ideal world, cars would be inspected in the way the MoT in the UK does it, or the TÜV in Germany. But realistically, a lot of people can't afford to keep their cars to such a high standard since they need them for work, and widespread public transit isn't a thing here.I would like the inspections to stick around (I've lived in Texas all my life, and annual inspections have always been a thing), but there's so much cheating going on (and more and more people don't bother to get their cars inspected or registration renewed), so without rigorous enforcement (which is basically a cop noticing your windshield sticker is out of date, or pulling you over for an equipment violation), there's no real point anymore.
  • Zipper69 Arriving in Florida from Europe and finding ZERO inspection procedures I envisioned roads crawling with wrecks held together with baling wire, duct tape and prayer.Such proved NOT to be the case, plenty of 20-30 year old cars and trucks around but clearly "unsafe at any speed" vehicles are few and far between.Could this be because the median age here is 95, so a lot of low mileage vehicles keep entering the market as the owners expire?
  • Zipper69 At the heart of GM’s resistance to improving the safety of its fuel systems was a cost benefit analysis done by Edward Ivey which concluded that it was not cost effective for GM to spend more than $2.20 per vehicle to prevent a fire death. When deposed about his cost benefit analysis, Mr. Ivey was asked whether he could identify a more hazardous location for the fuel tank on a GM pickup than outside the frame. Mr. Ivey responded, “Well yes…You could put in on the front bumper.”