Why The Dipstick Is Dying

Technology, along with laziness and market research, is killing the oil dipstick. Is this important? Should you care? Will we miss it when it's gone? Yes, yes, and an emphatic yes. Here's why.

Consider the lowly oil dipstick: It lives in a dark, hot cave. It gets covered in processed dinosaur bones and nasty, carbony sludge on a regular basis. Once every few thousand miles, it gets forcibly yanked out of its home, wiped down, shoved back into its house, and then yanked out again. Its world is built 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 compactor, the police won't show up at your house asking a bunch of irritating questions. And now that it's gradually being phased out of existence, it can't complain.

Why The Dipstick Is Dying

Wait — the Dipstick Is Going Where?

If you own or regularly use a car, that last sentence likely prompted one of three thoughts:

1) I like dipsticks, new cars suck, this is why my Nomad/Raceabout/E-Type/Starion rules

or

2) Yeah, it sucks, my awesome new car has no dipstick, I miss it

or

3) Huh?

The first two reactions are understandable; they represent the outcry of a population that enjoys a physical connection to its cars. The third 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.

Why Is This Happening? Why Should I Care?

Walk into a new car dealer, any new car dealer. Chances are, if you start poking under the hoods of some of the more expensive vehicles, you'll find at least one model that uses an electronic oil-level gauge in place of a 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 or an alert gong, that it's time to add or change oil.

As other outlets have reported, this switchover is intentional. It started with a handful of European luxury marques (Audi, BMW and Porsche), and is gradually making its way downmarket. And it's happening by popular demand. Common wisdom holds that the dipstick is dying for cost reasons or environmental concerns, but neither of these theories are true. We're losing the dipstick, manufacturers claim, because most of us don't use it.

Why The Dipstick Is Dying

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 signpost. Once upon a time, people checked their oil because they needed to (think early diesel or Wankel engines), because all machines require maintenance, and because few people will pay someone to do something they could easily do themselves. But it was also 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 physically checking your oil level is a near-redundant and irrelevant routine? On a certain level, yes. Still, that isn't the whole story.

By way of illustration, I once dated a woman who knew absolutely nothing about cars. She drove a late-1990s Toyota Corolla, and while she was not an enthusiast, she was an intelligent girl who liked having a bead on the world around her, a world that included her car. I helped her change her brake pads once or twice, but the only maintenance action she really appreciated was checking her oil — she did it every time she got gas because it made her feel like things were OK. In a world that rarely makes sense, she could confirm for herself that one thing about her car was the way it was supposed to be. The confidence may have been somewhat hollow, but you couldn't deny that it existed or mattered.

Why The Dipstick Is Dying

Do a sensor and an oil-level gauge 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, even if it isn't immediately apparent. For a certain segment of the population, machines will always be mysterious, and nothing will ever change that. (My grandmother once got confused by her digital toaster oven. Ce la vie.) This doesn't meant 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 — we like our cars, we want to know more about our cars, and an LCD screen is nowhere near as involving as the physical act of yanking out a dipstick — is a drumbeat most people know by heart, so we won't touch much on it here. Still, it would serve everyone well to remember its core construct: Responsibility is good, it's being taken away, and we want it back.

A Closing Thought

This is not a Luddite screed against technology or the relentless march of progress. We here at Jalopnik like machines, we like gadgets, and we like computers that make our lives easier. As long as there are lawyers, government regulations, engineers, and people who want driving to be as appliance-like as possible, cars will evolve. This is not always a bad thing, but we are damn wary of what it means.

Consider this post a friendly caution. Once the dipstick disappears altogether — and make no mistake, it will — then what comes next? And after that? What future deprivations will be birthed by 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 your Minority-Report-like automated transport device silently whisks you along a 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 that wherever our society goes, it gets there by choice.

People don't want to check their own oil? Fine. It may not be the beginning of something, but it's certainly not the end.



Photo Credits: Vladimir Bucibabcic/Shutterstock (dipstick/cloth), Vince Clements (dipstick head)