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Jessie Raymond: Bad tire sensors leave me deflated

Last week, I spent $102 to get my car fixed. Or, more accurately, I spent $102 to replace two faulty tire-pressure sensors that had triggered an ominous-looking amber dashboard light. The light erroneously indicated that one or more of my tires was dangerously low.
My tires were fine.
Perhaps you are familiar with that warning light: It’s a sort of horseshoe shape with the ends pointing up. It’s ripply on the bottom, with an exclamation point in the middle, meaning “Hey, pay attention, this is super important!”
But sometimes, it’s a false alarm.
You may have been seeing this light on your own dash for months and vaguely wondering if you should be worried. Probably not, but ask your mechanic just in case; one of these days, somewhere in the U.S., a tire-pressure sensor will actually last long enough to do its job. You might be one of the few drivers who avoid a dangerous blowout, rather than one of the many like me, who instead shell out for new sensors every year or two for no apparent reason.
If I sound cynical, it’s because my husband and I, over the past couple of years and across three vehicles, have replaced four bad tire-pressure sensors. We have not, however, had a single actual tire-pressure problem.
Years ago, cars didn’t have tire warning lights. You had to rely on an analog system, sometimes called “checking the tires.” Tire makers have, for years, built a handy visual pressure indicator right into each tire: Those needing air appear flatter on the bottom than on the top and sides.
It’s brilliant in its simplicity. But once computers were invented, someone thought it would make more sense to install delicate electronic sensors, one per tire, that would alert the driver when a tire’s pressure got low.
Why not? I mean, some cars have outdoor thermometers in the dash so you don’t have to go through the backbreaking ordeal of rolling down the window (by which I mean “pushing a button with one finger”) to determine whether it’s cold out.
Soon we’ll have a windshield wiper sensor light that tells you when your wipers are leaving streaks. And a horn sensor light to alert you when your horn won’t stop blaring. And a floor mat sensor light to tell you when a sippy cup full of milk has rolled under one of the seats on a hot day. (Actually, I wish I’d had one of those when the kids were little.)
Yes, I’m being flip. The truth is, tire-pressure sensors — when they work — are a potentially critical safety feature. When they became federally mandated in 2007, they were predicted to prevent hundreds of tire-related accident deaths every year. I just wish they were as reliable as the tires they were designed to monitor. I’ve had panty hose that lasted longer.
My (oddly casual) driver’s manual pretty much sums it up: “The low tire-pressure warning light is supposed to indicate a tire pressure problem. Ha. More likely the sensor has gone bad (again, LOL). Once your mechanic has confirmed this, just ignore the light until it’s time to get your car inspected. In the meantime, be sure to check your tires now and then. Note: You will need to exit the vehicle to do this.”
I can’t help wondering why sensor manufacturers don’t invent devices that would alert you to potential problems you couldn’t detect as easily as a soft tire. How about a sensor to warn you that your car is 40,000 miles overdue for a new timing belt? About 50 miles before the belt was about to break, an amber dash light would come on. It would be in the shape of a sad-faced person reluctantly parting with $500.
Most new cars these days, however, don’t even have timing belts. So if we’re going to stick to things like tire-pressure feedback systems, maybe we should work on improving them.
I’d like to see someone invent a tire-pressure sensor sensor, a small device that would be attached to each tire-pressure sensor. The sensor sensor would set off a light on the dashboard any time a sensor failed.
As much as I like how that highlights the absurdity of unreliable sensors, there’s a simpler and more practical solution: inventing a tire-pressure sensor that doesn’t routinely go bad in the first place.
“Interesting concept,” I can imagine a tire-sensor manufacturer saying. “But where’s the money in that?”

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