Winter driving is, generally, a pain in the ass. That usually starts with a morning windshield-scraping and snow-clearing so you can actually see well enough to drive. But what about your car? Many modern cars need to “see” as well, and all that ice and snow gets in the way. Here’s how to help.
When I say modern cars can “see,” in some ways, I actually mean that quite literally. An increasing number of newer cars come with a host of driver’s aids like lane departure warning systems, crash avoidance systems, adaptive cruise control, emergency brake assist, and more. While these systems stop short of offering full autonomous driving, together they provide significant information and assistance to a driver.
These systems use cameras, sensors, radar, ultrasound, or some combination of those things to do what they do. In winter months, hazardous road conditions mean any extra help they provide is useful, but it also means that like your windshield, a healthy coating of ice, snow, grime, or whatever can render these systems useless.
Many of our regular readers know this already, but when you’re standing out there in weather cold enough to make a wampa’s testicles cower back into its body, vainly trying to scrape away a vision-slit in your windshield, it’s easy to just want to rush through it and get in the relative warmth of your car.
But you shouldn’t. You paid good money for all those driver assistance systems, and now’s when you’ll need them the most, when your visibility is already compromised and everyone else driving is an idiot who has no idea how to drive in snow or ice. Take a couple extra moments to clear off those sensors so your car can do its job.
To help, we have a checklist and a diagram, because your frozen brain probably needs all the help it can get.
Here’s what you need to clear of ice and snow. First, the eternal ones:
• Windshield (obviously)
• Side windows, back window
• Lights (headlights and indicators, brake lights, tail lamps, etc.)
And here’s the set of sensors that most people seem to forget:
• Lane departure camera system
• Adaptive cruise control radar window
• Blind spot monitor cameras/sensors
• 360° view side cameras
• Rear view camera
• Ultrasonic parking assist sensors
Here’s a little diagram showing where these commonly are:
Now, some of these sensors are less sensitive to being blocked by ice or snow. The radar window and the bumper-mounted ultrasonic sensors should be more tolerant of obstructions (the former is often hidden in the grille), but their effectiveness can be impaired by ice or snow or dirt or whatever, so you may as well get them clear if you can.
Other systems, like lane departure or some forms of adaptive cruise control and/or emergency brake assist (think Subaru’s) are very camera-dependent, and those cameras are just like your eyes—they can’t see through ice and snow. The lane-departure cameras are often in the upper part of the windshield, behind the rear-view mirror, in a place most people don’t bother to scrape clear.
Of course, if the road is all white, the lane departure system won’t work, though a camera-based emergency brake system would still benefit from a clear view.
The side cameras used for blind spot monitoring and often for bird’s-eye 360° viewing systems are usually on the underside of the side mirrors. Backup cameras are usually tucked by the license plate light area, but you may have to look around. Some cars have a front camera, too, so be sure to clean that as well.
For some reason, carmakers seem a little ashamed of their sensors, so things like forward cameras and the front-facing radar windows are often hidden in the grille and/or the front badge. Check for strangely glossy and flat areas in the grille, or filled-in areas where you’d expect an air intake hole.
If you don’t clean these sensors well, not only will they just not work, but they may go irritatingly nuts. Ultrasonic parking sensors are some of the worst for this, and may beep at you because it’s getting false positives from a bit of ice or snow that it thinks is a hydrant you’re about to bash into. So, safety aside, it’s worth keeping the sensors clean and working for your own peace.
All this stuff is pretty new, and most people do not seem to yet be in the habit of clearing off their sensors so their car can operate to its full potential. If you’re already out scraping the windshield, you may as well take a moment and pull the icy blindfold off your car, too.
If, by chance, you have a Tesla or a Mercedes S-Class or some other nearly-autonomous car, you’ll also want to be sure the rear radar and side-mounted sensors are clear, too. Here’s a diagram of their approximate locations on the S Class:
Very soon, in many areas of the country, winter’s going to come hard and wet and messy and do all sorts of nasty popsiclization to our cars. If your car has driver’s aids you rely on, remember to take a moment to clean the parts where your car has to see and feel the world around it.
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