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A letter from Stew


About The Foreign Service > Newsletters

The Foreign Service Newsletter:
October 2002


Some of you have wan'ted to see a complete listing of all our services. The listing is now available online at If you don't have in'ternet access, just remember that we do everything except body work. We plan to make the web site more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing in the near future.


Our loaner cars are so popular that we rarely have them here for a day. We make our best efforts to keep them clean. You can help us out by not leaving stuff in them. If you do encoun'ter a messy loaner car, PLEASE let us know about it. If something happens to the loaner car while you have it, please tell us! We promise not to get mad. Awhile ago, in the trunk of our Volvo 5-speed loaner car, we discovered the cars belly pan (which is supposed to be attached to the bottom of the car). It appears to have ripped away from the car. We had to take the loaner car out of service for a day to reattach it. Please let us know about any mishap, no matter how insignifican't it may seem to you.


Aaah....where all the other cars on the road seem like K cars and Gremlins. It is with great sadness that we announce the impending retiremen't of Pepe, our 5-speed gray Volvo. Pepe has let us know in recen't days that 323,323 miles are enough, and he is ready to go out to our back pasture, alongside Revolvo. Our newest loaner car (a Volvo automatic) should be ready to go by the time you read this newsletter.


As most of you know, Im rarely in the office anymore. If youd like to talk to me when you pick up your car, just come on back to the shop. Id love the company! If I happen to be at a critical poin't in some car I have to finish up before the end of the day, I will let you know.


A quick note to those of you with newer cars and computerized ignition keys. Each key actually con'tains a small computer chip. Weve heard that using the Mobil Speedpass System at Mobil stations reportedly can damage the key coding on a number of cars; and cause, at minimum, a no start and a hassle for you. Computer chips and all things magnetic don't get along.


My home-grown electric car is now making the daily commute to the Foreign Service! Its great fun to roll silen'tly down the street, knowing that the car is not adding to the air pollution problem. The electric car is a Mazda Pick Up truck, which I converted to all-electric running gear. History: I became in'terested in electric cars five or six years ago when Kris gave me a book on converting gas-powered cars to all-electric power.

The book made a good case for the practicality of electric vehicles in urban and suburban environmen'ts, but the idea of building one did not in'terest me at the time. I thought about buying one, but there weren't any around; and the Ford Pick Up is only available in selected markets, and only as a lease. Then, the state of California got in'to a big fight with carmakers about a Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. California, with its unique air pollution problems, wan'ted to require the carmakers to put ZEVs on the market in California. California be ZEVs. Watching the California fight play out from here in Minnesota, it soon became clear to me that the carmakers were using the same old stalling tactics they used when the Clean Air Act was up for consideration in the 70s, and when the feds were trying to get seat belts in'to cars. The Clean Air Act is the legislation that launched the USA market in'to the forefron't of automotive technology by cleaning up emissions and vastly improving fuel economy.

For those of you who remember back that far, youll remember how the carmakers said that computer con'trols, fuel economy above 8 12 mpg, and on-board diagnostics (all the things we take for gran'ted today) were not economically possible, and would in fact destroy the carmakers and the American economy. They also said that the driving public would never wear seat belts, because it would just be a reminder of our mortality.

Despite efforts by carmakers and oil companies to kill the Clean Air Act, it was passed. Cars were improved and the American economy did not tank (at the time). Fast forward to now. Here in Minnesota, the California ZEV spilled in'to the news. While listening to NPR one day, I heard an industry spokesperson refer to electric cars as just batteries on wheels (and, by conclusion, impractical). His commen'ts wen't unchallenged. I just got tired of hearing the misinformation. It was starting to remind me of that statemen't made by Henry Ford when he had the only game in town you can have any color Model T you wan't, as long as its black. Well, it was looking to me as if I could have any kind of car I wan'ted, as long as it used crude oil. I decided to make my own judgmen't. Was an electrical car practical for Minnesota?

So began the trials; and, so far, so good. It looks like any other 89 Mazda truck an ordinary vehicle. An astute observer will note the absence of a tailpipe, but thats about it. How does it work? You get in, put the key in the ignition, turn it to the on position, put it in gear, step on the throttle, and away you go. Whats differen't? The truck is heavier with the battery packs, but the gas engine is gone, and the truck is still well below its rated capacity. In other words, I can go to Menards with it and load it up with stuff. Instead of the fuel pump, it gets plugged in'to an outlet at night to charge up.

A full charge allows you to go between fifty and a hundred miles, before it needs a recharge. The mileage range depends on the kind of driving you do. Speeds between fifty and seven'ty mph will decrease its mileage range, due to the aerodynamic drag. Yes, it does go seven'ty. The truck had a five-speed transmission, but there is no clutch anymore and you only need second gear around town, and up to third for speeds above forty. It feels and drives like an automatic transmission. The only drawback I can think of is the need to be even more aware of pedestrians, bicyclists, and critters, because they can't hear the EV. Who woulda thunk it?

My total dollar investmen't in the EV was about $7,000. Not bad for a new car. Hmm. Car engineers say they can't build an economical EV, but your mechanic can. Im amazed too by the noise of all the other cars when traffic is stopped. EVs get rid of noise pollution, too! Another EV virtue is that there is not a single computer in the car. Wondering why Batteries On Wheels is worth it just for that reason? Read on.


A very significan't bit of news came out last week; and, like all other news, got lost in the argumen't over Iraq.Paul Wellstone, by in'troducing legislation in the US Senate, was able to force the carmakers to release their proprietary repair information and tools to the independen't (non-dealer) repair market.

This is really exciting news for consumers. Over the past years, carmakers have been releasing less and less repair information while at the same time making cars more dependen't on specialized tools and software. How did they do this? Think of all the computers in your car. You probably have a separate computers for your fuel system, transmission system, ignition system, door locks, windows, mirrors, an'tilock brakes, airbags and other restrain't systems. And thats not the end of the list. Climate con'trols, instrumen't clusters, traction con'trol, cruise con'trol, sound systems, suspension, seat memory, sunroofs. Whew! And thats not even all of them.

If this agreemen't had not been reached, the following is a likely repair scenario: your air conditioning system malfunctions and turns the check engine light on. The check engine light is notifying you that a problem has been detected; but, un'til you can get in for repair, you have no way to know what the code is for. Maybe your engine is melting down. Maybe your gas cap is loose.

When you stop in to your corner garage to have it checked out, they tell you "You Have to Go to the Dealer" because the code theyre getting reads unknown, or they don't have the dealer tool to read the codes and erase them. The usual reason they don't have the tool is because the dealer won't sell it to them. When you call the dealer, they tell you they are booked for three weeks (guess why!).

My long years on the fron't line of auto diagnostics gave me the resourcefulness to deal with many of these problems, but it has been tough. All too often we would fix a problem, but could not reset the check engine light due to a lack of specialized software. After making one too many trips to the Saab dealer with a customer car, we tried to buy the Saab scan tool that in'terfaces with all Saab computers. Guess what? Saab didn't sell these to anybody but dealers. We found one on the black market, but it took over six mon'ths.

Some of these tools are incredibly expensive ($15,000, for example, is not an unreasonable price to have to pay for a tool that will work on just one type of car). We get the jokes about labor rates being so high (which they aren't), but we could charge three times as much and still not have enough money to buy all the tools we need. Welcome to the wonderful world of the 21st cen'tury automobile you and computers on wheels.

Hope to hear from you soon.


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