Monday, December 22, 2008

Limp and Lifeless

Steph was in town briefly this past week, for some meetings.  We were able to catch up one night, go out for drinks and dinner at Poblano.  It was perfectly lovely, and in the course of the evening I realized I could easily pick her up after he final interview the next day and give her a ride to BWI.

So Friday afternoon, she calls from Tenleytown in DC and says she is ready to go.  I have no trouble at all getting over there, and the pickup goes smoothly.  We drive north, headed for the Beltway.  I knew the Beltway would not be easy at that point, but there's no better way to get from Tenleytown to BWI that I know of.  Google Maps agrees.

Everything is going fine, until we head up the ramp onto I-495.  Then things start happening.  The CHECK GEARBOX and CHECK ENGINE lights come on.  The engine suddenly races, but the transmission stays in first.  Then the car begins to shake and shimmy - it seems like it is trying to shift, but can't.  Seeing as there were not other warnings, so indication of sudden mechanical failure, I'm suspicious.  I think it is some sort of problem with the computer.  And what fixes a computer?  Reboot.

I pull into the breakdown lane and shut the car down.  I wait a few moments, and restart.  No warning lights.  Shifts into first, and then 2nd as I pull back into traffic.  Problem solved, I am brilliant.  For about 20 seconds.  The entire scenario repeats itself.  And again, when I stop and restart a second time.

Now my mind is racing - how do I get Steph to the airport on time?  This is where fortune handed me a mixed bag.  The exit we come to next, where I pull off to get towed is at Silver Spring.  For those not familiar with DC, Silver Spring is one of our edge cities, basically an extra downtown out on the Beltway.  It has a Metro and commuter train station - Steph can get on the train to the BWI station and still make her flight.  However, it is also a busy, built-up area.  Not a lot of good places to pull over and wait for a tow.  Not know what was wrong, I was concerned that driving much farther was going to damage the car - the tachometer was flirting with redline most of the time at this point.

So I pull over as best I can - basically in a bus stop, as luck would have it.  NO PARKING, NO STANDING, NO STOPPING signs abound.  I quickly say goodbye to Steph as she hauls her baggage to the nearby station.  I manage to shoo away the parking enforcement office who appears within seconds of stopping.  And I call AAA to get towed.  As I wait, I reflect on the fact that only worse time and place for a breakdown would be in the middle of nowhere while racing to get someone to the hospital.

The tow was a challenge.  Towing from Silver Spring to Alexandria in rush hour is no mean feat.  But we got to a shop near my house eventually.  The next day they called with their diagnosis.  Apparently my battery dead dead dead.  This was surprising, because I had seen no low voltage or other electrical warnings.  It was bad enough that they could not restart the car, and the battery would not recharge in the slightest.  But apparently the car's computer sensed it early.  And when it did, it implemented a safety feature I was not aware of: Limp Home Mode.  Essentially stay in first, implement a throttle lock, and start shutting down peripheral systems.  It cannot be overridden unless you fix the problem and clear the computer memory.

While I'm glad the car is not "really" broken, it is somehow unsatisfying.  After creating so much trouble, and inconveniencing my friend to such a degree, I want a better reason than "the battery was messed up."  I wouldn't mind any of this, if it had only happened some other time, when I wasn't in the middle of doing something important.  At least it got fixed, and fairly cheaply at that.

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