Why does my vehicle need all these different sensors?

When Melissa learned that her car needed a new oxygen sensor, she recalled that not long ago, the mass airflow (MAF) sensor had been replaced. And not very long before that, the coolant temperature sensor (CTS) needed replacement.

When her husband suggested that she might need to have her throttle position sensor (TPS) checked, she found herself wondering, "What are all these sensors for, and why would they need to be replaced?"

This is a logical question, especially when you consider that the vehicles manufactured just a few decades ago seemed to get along fine without any sensors at all! To find the answer, we need to look at how today's high-tech vehicles differ from their low-tech predecessors.

Any car or light truck built since the early 1980s has a computer-controlled engine that's run by an electronic control module (ECM). In fact, some of the newest vehicles can easily have six or more different ECMs that control the engine, transmission, antilock brakes, cruise control, electronic suspension, climate control, etc. The primary onboard computer is now called the power-train control module, or PCM.

Once your engine is warmed up, the PCM monitors signals from various electronic sensors and uses that information to continually adjust critical functions like ignition timing, air-to-fuel ratio, cooling fan operation, alternator output and the emission control system.

These sensor inputs are constantly changing as you accelerate, slow down, climb hills and raise or lower the engine's operating temperature. As the inputs change, the PCM continually "tweaks" the various engine functions to optimize performance and fuel economy while minimizing the release of pollutants into the atmosphere.

To do this effectively, the PCM must continually be updated with fresh information. So the sensors feed it a steady stream of data such as vehicle speed, engine speed, throttle position, engine operating temperature, exhaust gas content and so forth. In essence, the sensors are the eyes and ears of the computerized control modules.

This is how the system is supposed to work when everything is functioning smoothly. If one of the sensors should send a false or abnormal signal (or no signal at all) to the PCM, the control module may find itself flying blind without sufficient information about how to do its job properly. At this point, it may start making bad decisions. Or it may switch to an "open loop" or "limp-in" mode so the engine can continue to run without the benefit of the sensor data.

Either way, the engine is likely to exhibit problems such as rough idle, hesitation, reduced fuel economy or excessive (and smelly) exhaust emissions. In many cases, the PCM will trigger the malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) on the instrument panel, and store a diagnostic trouble code (DTC) in its memory. The symptoms are likely to continue until the cause of the bad sensor signal is found and corrected.

The problem could lie within the sensor itself. Some sensors may fail if they get damaged or corrode with carbon, get fried by a high-voltage spike, or simply wear out. The presence of a faulty signal does not always mean that the sensor itself has failed, however.

Various other conditions such as vacuum leaks, clogged fuel injectors, a defective EGR valve, fouled spark plugs, low fuel pressure or low alternator output can produce symptoms that might indicate a bad sensor. The source of the problem may just as easily be a bad spark plug, loose wiring or a faulty fuel pump.

Your Quality Care Auto technician may need to run a series of diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the malfunction. Only then can the defective component be identified and repaired or replaced.

You may have heard that some vehicles have a computer that can detect things like a bad spark plug or a gas cap that hasn't been tightened properly. Sound farfetched? Well, it’s true! That's because most vehicles built since 1996 have a more sophisticated onboard computer system (OBD) that can detect a variety of malfunctions such as fuel tank leaks, ignition misfires and failing catalytic converters.

For a rundown on some of the key sensors found in today's vehicles and what they do, click on More Sensor Details

Preventing breakdowns

The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that as many as 5,000,000 roadside breakdowns could be prevented each year if motorists would simply ensure their belts, hoses, tires and batteries are checked on a regular basis.

In Ben's case, if service is not performed on his vehicle for 10,000 miles, that means no one is inspecting his belts; hoses; battery; charging, cooling, fuel and ignition systems; brakes; tires; transmission; steering; suspension; exhaust; etc. Ben can’t know if potential problems are developing in any of those areas.

Have your vehicle serviced at the appropriate intervals to control your car's repair and maintenance needs—don’t let those needs control you! For recommendations regarding the proper service intervals for your vehicle, consult your owner's manual or ask your service technician.




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