Let Inga Tell You: Sensors are a solution that often don’t make sense

Faulty tire pressure sensor lights can cost time and money, not to mention patience.

On the bulletin board next to my desk is a sign that says, “The chief cause of problems is solutions.” Among the solutions that are frequently the cause of problems are the sensors that theoretically alert you that something in your home or vehicle is about to go wrong.

But in my experience, what’s often broken are the sensors themselves. Sensors lie. A lot. But not before terrifying you when you’re 20 miles from the nearest exit on the freeway by telling you that your engine is imminently out of oil and if you drive even 10 more feet, your engine will freeze into a blocksicle from which it can never be thawed.

Cars are especially prone to flaky sensors. There was a lot of exchange on the neighborhood social media recently about tire pressure sensors that are prone to flash even when the tire pressure is fine. Which the owner finds out only after taking time out of a busy life to take it to a service station.

Apparently, it costs (at least) $60 to have your defective tire sensor light replaced, not to mention leaving the car there for a half-day.

A local friend with a very, very high-end car paid $700 for her faulty tire pressure sensor light to be fixed.

While I would personally covet a sensor that will beep when you’re about to hit the numbskull who walks behind your car as you’re backing out of your space at Gelson’s, I didn’t want to mention to my friend that I have managed to live my whole life without a dashboard tire pressure sensor.

My 2005 Toyota Corolla has a more manual version of a tire pressure gauge that was activated recently when I drove over to the nail-prone Tourmaline parking lot to walk on the beach, heard a sudden loud hiss and felt my car list to starboard. “I think I have lost tire pressure,” I said to myself.

Car ignition sensors seem to be a source of peril as well. While a friend was getting gas one evening, her purse was stolen, including house keys, car ignition sensor, driver’s license, etc.

Worse, since the perps now had the automatic ignition sensor, she had no way to start the car to get home. The fancy computer-programmed ignition sensor was $496 and took a week to replace. Worse, for the first night, since the thieves had both the ignition sensor and her address from her driver’s license, they could have stolen her SUV right out of her driveway.

I confess that my little Corolla, with its low-tech keys, was looking better and better. (And in my case, I would have hoped they’d steal it.)

Overzealous sensors that have proliferated on washing machines are in a category all their own. Balance sensors seem to be a particular problem across many brands (probably not all that surprising since one repair guy maintained they’re all made in the same factory in China). My machine wants to “self-balance” (unlike my previous machines, whose balance setter was me), but if there is anything in there heavier than underwear (God forbid you should want to wash towels), it is scientifically designed to shift everything to one side then sound like it is agitating a bowling ball.

The only person more scared of this machine than the dog is me. I can’t leave the house when it is running, as I have to be prepared to race in and stop the machine as it literally flails around like a mechanical bull with a broken speed control. Unsupervised, the machine could end up in our bedroom.

Multiple calls to the warranty service people have ended with them suggesting that I “not wash anything heavy.” These would be the same heavy objects I have been washing in its predecessors for 40 years. I did finally find one semi-solution, which is to override the auto water level sensor and wash everything on “deep water wash,” thereby obviating all the ecological advantages this useless machine was supposed to have.

My tech-loving engineer husband and I have debated the merits of technology, including sensors, on many occasions. He maintains that well-designed technology should be intuitive. You play with it, you figure it out, you don’t need a manual. Every time Olof mentions the word “intuitive,” I want to smite him.

From time to time, we techno-hostile people actually prevail. Olof and I like to sit outside on summer evenings and read, he on his iPad, me with a library book. Occasionally, Olof will have to go in early because the iPad’s low-battery sensor is flashing. I try to look sympathetic, but it’s all I can do to stifle a maniacal cackle. I never have to worry about the battery power on my library book getting too low.

“You don’t have to look so smug,” my techno-husband will say, heading indoors.

“Oh,” I reply, “but I really do.”

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆