Canada makes moves to stop ‘phantom vehicles’

Dear Car Talk:

I had a scary experience last night. I borrowed my friend’s car for an errand, got in the car and drove away.

The lights on the dashboard were on, so I assumed my headlights were on. But they weren’t. It turns out that at night, the dashboard looks exactly the same whether the headlights are on or not. The only way to tell, apparently, is to look for the little, tiny headlight icon. After several drivers flashed their lights at me, I finally figured out what was wrong.

Shouldn’t dashboard lights stay off unless your headlights are on? Wouldn’t that be safer? If the dashboard was dark, I certainly would have known to turn on my lights at night! -- Sharon

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Ray Magliozzi

Ray Magliozzi

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Ray Magliozzi

RAY: I agree with you 100%, Sharon. And so does the government of Canada.

Canada calls cars like yours “phantom vehicles” when they’re driving at night without headlights or taillights on. And now they’ve put a stop to it. They implemented three new requirements in 2021.

First, all cars in Canada are already required to have daytime running lights. Those are always-on, dimmer lights up front that add to a car’s visibility during the day. But until recently, there was no requirement that DRLs include any lighting at the back of the car.

The whole purpose of DRLs is to make cars easier to see -- during the day, but also when visibility is poor. Up until now, they’ve helped you see cars coming at you. Now, with taillights included, they’ll help you see cars driving in front of you, too.

Second, any car with DRLs must automatically turn on the car’s full set of headlights, taillights and side markers at night. This is a simple technology that most cars now have anyway. But it’s an option, and you have to choose the “automatic” setting on your headlight switch. Canada’s new law requires it be the default setting -- so no one can forget to turn on their full set of lights at night.

And finally, the new law eliminates the problem you had, Sharon. It forbids dashboard lights from being illuminated unless the car’s full exterior lights are on.

These are all very smart, sensible requirements. And we hope -- like those cold fronts Canada sends us every year -- these rules quickly make it down to the lower 48.

Read the owner’s manual before heading to the auto parts store

Dear Car Talk:

After six and a half years of driving my 2015 Audi A4, I decided to replace the battery. I got a replacement battery at my local auto parts store and swapped out the batteries.

When I looked in my owner’s manual, I was surprised to learn that the new battery needed to be “registered” in the car’s computer system, otherwise -- the manual said -- the car’s battery management system wouldn’t work properly.

I took the car to a local mechanic who specializes in German cars, and he told me that in order to register the battery he needed an 11-digit part number, a three-digit vendor number, and 10 digit serial number.

The battery I bought at the auto parts store had none of these numbers on it, and, according to the company that made it, those numbers are not available for their batteries. I then called the Audi dealer, who told me they could register the battery for $240. I only paid $200 for the battery!

What’s the story? Do I need to register this battery in the car, and what happens if I don’t? -- John

RAY: Audi’s got you over an Ingolstadt beer barrel here, John.

The reason they want you to enter the battery’s details is so the charging system knows that you have a new battery and knows the battery’s specifications.

Why does that matter? Well, an older battery on its last legs needs to be charged more intensively, to keep it working. And if the Audi thinks you’re still using your old, 6-year-old battery, Audi says it could overcharge your new battery, and possibly even damage your $600 alternator.

We’re told that some aftermarket batteries will provide the information the Audi computer needs, in which case any shop (like your German car specialist) that has Audi’s diagnostic software can do the update for you.

But since you did what most screw-it-up-yourselfers do (screw it up first, read the instructions later), you bought a battery before figuring out what you actually needed.

What can you do now? Well, you can genuflect to the Audi dealer. You can buy another aftermarket battery that provides the information you need. Or you can take your chances and drive it, and hope you sell the car to your no-good cousin Buford before it becomes a problem.

If you’re really stubborn, and feel lucky, I suppose you could take the numbers off of your old battery, perhaps changing the last few digits of the serial number, enter those numbers, and see if your Audi “accepts” that as a new battery with the same specs.

That would be sneaky, and I have no idea if your computer would accept it, or if it would protect the new battery correctly. So I can’t recommend you try that.

But I understand how it might be tempting to try it instead of spending $240 to have the dealer do something similar -- a workaround.

Next time, ask your German car specialist to steer you toward an aftermarket battery that has the necessary documentation. It sounds like he’s read the manual. Good luck.

Got a question about cars? Write to Ray in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email by visiting the Car Talk website at www.cartalk.com.

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