Art by Jason Torchinsky

Automobiles and the infrastructure around them are complicated, which is why Jalopnik takes pride in writing explainers that help take some of the mystery out of the car world we all love. Here are some of Jalopnik’s most interesting explainers of 2018.

We at Jalopnik love learning about how things work, and all of us have different topics that interest us, so here are some explainers about racing, history, infrastructure, design, or also just nerdy technical systems.


How Old Volkswagens Used Their Spares Tire to Activate Windshield Washers

Photo: Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement

If you’ve got dirt on your windshield obstructing your view, the play is to simply turn on your wipers and activate your washers. An electric pump takes washer fluid from a reservoir under the hood, and spritzes it through a nozzle or two near the base of the windshield.

But on old VWs, there is no electric pump. Instead, air pressure in the spare tire—which is mounted under hood—is used to send the cleansing fluid onto your front glass. In this story, Jason Torchinsky explains how and why, and it is truly fascinating.

Advertisement

Why You Can’t Unlock a Door If Someone Is Trying to Open It at the Same Time

Art by Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement

When I visited my coworker Jason earlier this year, his awesome wife gave me a ride to and from a restaurant in her Scion XB, and on our way back, pressed the “unlock” button on her key fob at the exact same time that I pulled the door handle. The door remained locked.

This is something that has happened to me countless times, and it’s always odd having to ask the key fob-holder to please click the button again. I told Jason about this, and he said he’s experienced the same thing, except with manual doors. So we teamed up on this explainer on why you can’t unlock a door and open it simultaneously. Jason even looked at his Beetle’s door lock from inside the door panel, and I yanked two latches—one from a Beetle, and one from an Oldsmobile Alero—to have an up-close look at how it all works.

Advertisement

The Engineering Behind the New BMW 3 Series Improved Handling

Photo: BMW (art by Jason Torchinsky)

Advertisement

The “G20" 2019 BMW 3 Series debuted this year, and BMW claimed significant improvements to handling. This was a big deal, since the 3 Series has for the longest time been the standard for sports sedan fun, and since the previous generation “F30" had, by many accounts, lost a lot of the soul that previous 3 Series cars embodied.

Part of that had to do with the outgoing car’s dull steering, which BMW claims to have livened up with the new generation. I spoke with a BMW dynamics engineer, and he gave me a detailed run-down of how his team improved not just steering feedback, but also steering directness, ride quality, and cornering limits.

Advertisement

It’s a nerdy article involving terms like “mechanical trail” and including free body diagrams by me and other sketches by BMW’s engineer.

Here’s How Speed Limits Are Set

Advertisement

We all know we should follow speed limits, but do we ever wonder who comes up with those numbers, and how? Ryan Felton looks into this in his story Here’s How Speed Limits are Set.


Why Tires are Black

Photo: BF Goodrich

Advertisement

Tires are black because companies add a petroleum-based fine powder called “carbon black” to rubber. This article not only explains why they do this, but it also explains exactly what carbon black is, and its surprisingly riveting history in the tire industry—a history that involves Crayola (yes, the crayon company) and a World War I munitions shortage.

What Compression Ratio Means and Why It Matters

Advertisement

“Compression ratio” is a term that we hear a lot in the auto industry when new engines come out promising better fuel economy and improved performance. But how does compression ratio equate to better thermal efficiency. And what exactly is compression ratio in the first place? This story by Kristen Lee answers those and much more.

Here’s Why Pro Drag Racers’ Front Wheels Don’t Exactly Line Up

Advertisement


“Spindle Stagger’ is a term I had never heard prior to reading this lovely Raphael Orlove piece describing why drag cars have one front tire ahead of the other. It’s all part of optimizing the complicated “staging” process, as described in detail in the article.

Advertisement


How NASCAR Works in 2018

Advertisement

The way NASCAR operates is just downright confusing. It involves a 26 race regular season, a 10 race (but four “round”) “playoff” season, points, and a whole bunch of other considerations that go into factoring who wins the championship. It’s all really complicated, which is why I’m so glad Alanis King was on the case.

The Art of Changing Tires During a NASCAR Pit Stop

Advertisement

Pit stops in NASCAR are absurdly fast, and I’ve always found them fascinating. So any insight into how that whole process works has me hooked, which is why this story about preparing wheels for a NASCAR pit stop—a preparation that involves gluing lug nuts to wheels—is so awesome.


Why Automakers Don’t Advertise How Long It Takes to Fully Charge an Electric Car

Art by Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement

So many automakers advertise “x minutes to 80 percent charge,” but very few will advertise how long it takes to get the battery fully topped-off. That‘s because that final 20 percent or so takes a while to charge up, and that has to do with battery chemistry, as Justin Westbrook explains in this story.

Here’s How Electronic Parking Brakes Work

Photo: BMW

Advertisement

Electric park brakes are hot right now, with fewer and fewer new cars coming with the classic ratcheting park brake lever or even a ratcheting park brake pedal. Instead, there’s just a small push-pull button in the center console. But how does it work, and why is the industry going this route? Justin’s article looks into these, and describes the two main EPB systems: a cable actuated setup with a remote motor and a caliper-integrated design.

Why Some Automatic Transmissions Have Zig-Zaggy Shifters

Art by Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement

There are lots of different automatic transmission shifters out there these days, but for the longest time, there were really just two main floor-mounted strategies: straight PRNDL or gated PRNDL. Keen to figure out why an automaker would choose one design over the other, Jason reached out to a transmission engineer and enlightened the world with this article.

Why Some Cars Look Like They’re Driving Sideways Down The Road

See the Ford Explorer in the video above? It appears to be driving sideways down a straight road—something I’ve seen numerous times here on the streets of Michigan. Why is this so common, and what exactly is causing this phenomenon known as “dog tracking” or “crab walking”? In this article, I talk with a former Ford chassis engineer, and I look under that very model of Ford explorer to show what’s going on.

Advertisement


How Special Paint On The Hood Of The World War II Jeep Protected Soldiers’ Lives

Photo credit: Farrell Fox; Art by Jason Torchinsky.

Advertisement

Yellow paint on the hood of World War II Jeeps served a special purpose, helping soldiers identify chemical weapons in the air. Here’s a look at the history behind this special dye, and why it mattered.

What ‘DOHC’ Means and Why It Matters

Photo: Eget arbejde (Wikimedia Commons)

Advertisement

So many cars, especially ones from the ’90s and 2000s, have “DOHC” badges on them denoting that their engines have dual overhead camshafts. What does this actually mean, and why should anyone care? That’s what Jason explained in this story.

What Those Black Tubes in the Road Are

We’ve all driven over those black tubes in the road, but what exactly are they for? Well, my coworker Justin looked it up, and apparently these are pneumatic tubes that—when driven over—shoot a burst of air and trigger a sensor, whose readings can be used for a variety of things, like understanding whether speed limits are appropriate for that road, or if additional enforcement is needed.

Advertisement

What’s With Interference Engines?

Art by Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement


If you’ve owned a vehicle with a timing belt, you’ve probably worried about that thing snapping, and—if your car has an interference engine—you’ve probably been scared out of your wits about your pistons banging into your valves. In this article, Jason breaks down the phenomenon—or, to some, the headache—that is the interference engine.

Advertisement

The Difference Between Boxer and Flat Engines

Art by Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement


A boxer engine and a flat engine are not the same. A boxer engine gives each connecting rod its own crank pin, but a flat engine does not. Jason’s article here aims to make sure that we, as car enthusiasts, know these things.

Advertisement

The Definitive Rules of Vanhood 

Art by Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement

“What is a van?” is a question we should all have asked ourselves numerous times in this life. After our former coworker Ryan claimed that a Ford Flex was a van, Jason decided to break down the two main categories of van: van by design and van by job. And now the tragedy of van ambiguity is over.

A Detailed Look at How the Mahindra Roxor Compares to an Old Jeep CJ

Photo: Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement

One of the coolest debuts of 2018 was that of the Mahindra Roxor—a vehicle that looks a lot like an old Jeep CJ, and whose basic architecture is ultimately derived from one.

But mechanically, how similar is the new Mahindra side-by-side to a classic flat-fender Jeep, actually? Here’s a detailed comparison.

Advertisement

Here’s The Difference Between Synthetic And Normal Motor Oil, And What The Numbers On The Bottle Mean

Ary by Jason Torchinsky

Advertisement

Want a simple explanation on motor oil that discusses the weight rating on the bottle and the difference between synthetic and conventional oil? Here you go.

What Those Rubber Flaps Hidden Behind Your Bumper Cover are For

Pretty much all cars have hidden rubber flaps (usually behind the bumper, but some vehicles, like the Jeep Wrangler JK, have it in other spots like behind the spare tire) meant to act as one-way valves. Here’s why they’re there.

Advertisement

The Definitive Answer To What That Heat Exchanger-Looking Thing Is Under The Nissan Rogue

Photo: Nissan

Advertisement

Because I knew you were curious after sitting behind hundreds of the absurdly fast-selling Nissan Rogues in traffic. And no, it’s not a heat exchanger.