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March 8, 2013

Vent It Out Friday: Dipstick Future

Technology, along with laziness is killing the oil dipstick. Is this important? Should we care? Will we miss it when it’s gone? The answer to all three is an emphatic yes.

Consider the lowly dipstick: it lives in a dark, hot cave known as the engine bay. It gets covered by liquefied and processed dinosaur remains and nasty, carbon sludge on a regular basis. Once every few thousand kilometers, it gets forcibly yanked out of its home, wiped down, shoved back into its house, and then yanked out again. Its world is build of inconsistency, shock, and extreme conditions.

If the average dipstick were conscious, it would probably spend most of its existence thinking one thing: my life sucks.

Good thing, then, that the dipstick is not a person. It doesn’t have feelings, it doesn’t want to talk to you, and if you ball it up and throw it into your trash, the police won’t show up at your house. And now that it’s gradually being phased out of existence, it can’t complain.

If you own or regularly use a car, knowing that the oil dipstick is being shown the door can prompt one of two reactions: “I’ll miss it” or “Huh”. The first reaction is understandable; it represents the outcry of a person with a physical connection to his car. The second is the root of the problem. You use your engine’s dipstick to check oil. If you don’t check your oil, you don’t use your dipstick. If you don’t use your dipstick, you arguably don’t need your dipstick. And if you don’t need it, you don’t notice when it’s taken away.

Walk into a new car dealer, any car dealer. Chances are, if you start poking under the hood of some of the more expensive vehicles, you’ll find at least one model that uses an electric oil-level gauge in place of the traditional dipstick. If you want to check the oil, you don’t have to get out of the car or get your hands dirty. And if you’re too lazy to check it or just don’t care, you don’t have to worry. Your car will tell you via a warning light that it’s time to change or add oil.

This switchover is international. It started with a handful of expensive European brands and now, it’s gradually making its way down market. And it’s happening by popular demand. Common wisdom holds that the dipstick is dying for cost or environmental reasons, but neither of these theories is true. We’re losing the dipstick, manufacturers claim, because most of us don’t use it.

What does this represent? Why should the disappearance of a small, relatively insignificant part in a car’s engine be something we mourn? Simple: it’s a sign. Once upon a time, people checked their oil because they needed to, because all machines require maintenance, and because few people will pay someone to do something they could easily do themselves. But it was an act we subconsciously enjoyed. We take satisfaction from the things we own and use when we feel like we have some control over them. Is there truth to the idea that few modern cars ever use oil or possess user-serviceable parts, and that on a physical level checking your oil is a near redundant and irrelevant routine? Perhaps.

By way of illustration, we don’t change our own parts such as brake pads and stuff. That’s hardcore even by yesteryear’s standard. Yet, by diligently checking oil, it gave a sense that everything in the car was okay. The confidence may have been somewhat hallow, but you couldn’t deny that it existed.

Do a sensor and an oil dipstick do the same thing? Of course. Still, the room for error is disconcerting. Sensors fail; computers have glitches; readouts aren’t always correct. A certain intangible quality is missing. Machines will always be mysterious, and nothing will ever change that. This doesn’t mean that technological distance (the growing gap between the number of machines we use and how well we understand their inner workings) is a good thing.

The enthusiast’s argument is that an LCD screen is nowhere as involving as the physical act of yanking out a dipstick. It’s a drumbeat some people know by heart, but it still serves right for everyone to remember its core construct: responsibility is good, but it’s being taken away. And I want it back.

Don’t get me wrong. I like machines, I like gadgets, and I like computers that make life easier. But as long as there are engineers, regulators, and market researchers, cars will evolve. This is not always a bad thing, but we should be wary of what it means.

Consider this a friendly word of caution. Once the dipstick disappears altogether, what comes next? What future deprivations will be born out of our laziness? This change may not seem to matter now, but it marks a long trend, a movement away from individual responsibility and the man-machine connection. Fifty years from now, when you’re whisked along an automated, computer-controlled highway, when you’re longing for vehicular involvement and a world where cars are actually fun; remember that evolution moves in baby steps, not giant lunges. And remember, it probably all started with the disappearance of the dipstick.


  1. Better start buying new cars now, and owning them for life.
    It it's cost, the dip stick is cheaper than gauges + sensors.

    I'm fortunate I can still do my own oil change. Let the oil drain the whole day. Collect the used oil in a drum, to be sold later to junk shops.

    --bxr monkey

  2. Another thing that that's disappearing is the keyhole. They're disappearing from the passenger side door and the trunk. And lately from the driver's side door. (Mirage?)
    Keyless entry is okay. But I tend to keep a car until it falls apart. For sure, the electronic bling blings will fail. It's reassuring to have a mechanical backup.
    Related to this also is the ignition switch. Start-stop button makes the car look like an appliance. Ignition switch has more connection, and can be used during push starts.


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