Baby you can(’t) drive my car
December 12, 2017 8:03 AM   Subscribe

My car frequently won’t start in the morning...but only when my friend borrows it. What gives?

I have a 2006 Scion xA that works great, gets regular maintenance, and has no maintenance lights on. It’s only randomly failed to start for me once, a year and a half ago, after a cross-county drive. My friend has now had to borrow my car for two multi-day periods in the past couple months, and it’s been dead in the morning when he goes to start it 3-4 times. He’s pretty sure he’s not leaving the dome light or headlights on, or not shutting the doors completely. Is there anything else we haven’t considered? In case this is relevant, he’s a foot taller than me and charges an e-cig in the outlet in the center console. I park on the street and he parks in a gravel driveway. He’s going to get the battery checked today.
posted by quiet coyote to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total)
Is he leaving the e-cig charger when he gets out? Most cars will continue drawing power to a charger even if it in not connected to the device you want to charge.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:06 AM on December 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

When you say "Dead" you mean dead battery? I assume the e-cig isn't in the console when he's not in the car? Because that's the obvious thing right there.
posted by jessamyn at 8:06 AM on December 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Do they use the glove compartment? I had a car where the switch that turned off the glove compartment light wasn't being pushed all the way down when the door was closed and it would drain the battery.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:07 AM on December 12, 2017

Response by poster: Yes, sorry, dead battery. I think he’s taking all ecig related items with him when he leaves the car (or at least, that’s what I’ve seen him do), but I’ll ask.
posted by quiet coyote at 8:16 AM on December 12, 2017

Could be your alternator dying. If he's charging the e-cig while driving, perhaps the system is probably not getting enough current to charge the battery back to starting capacity?

I've seen so many cases where people believe the battery is dead and they get a new one...which works great for about a week as the new battery is eventually drained down to zero and they're right back where they started. A place like AutoZone that sells batteries can also give you a free alternator check.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:19 AM on December 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

Once when my ex drove my car he called me in a panic unable to get the keys out of the ignition. He said he tried and tried and wiggled and jiggled and pulled and nothing doing, they just would not come out no matter what. So I had to haul my ass clear across the city and come rescue him.

He hadn't put the vehicle in park.

He had only ever driven manual transmission cars where I guess(?) you can stop the car by putting it in neutral and engaging the e-brake, but that's not a thing for automatic cars, certainly not the one I had. And since the car wasn't in park a safety mechanism had engaged not letting him leave the car until it was done.

But at no point in my phone conversation with him did it occur to me to say, "oh hey, did you make sure to put the car in park?" because obviously any idiot parking a car would put it in park.

I would suggest getting in the car with your friend and watching him go through all his steps of car use. He may be doing something so totally obvious to you and not-obvious to him that it wouldn't occur to either of you independently to check.
posted by phunniemee at 8:20 AM on December 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

Do you charge your phone or other things in the car or is his e-cig the only thing that is regularly plugged into the outlet?
posted by soelo at 8:24 AM on December 12, 2017

Response by poster: He drives me in my car fairly frequently and I haven’t seen anything odd. He definitely takes the ecig and charger out and isn’t using the lighted compartment. The glove box doesn’t have a light but he did open it yesterday, and it was dead this morning. I’ll ask him to check the alternator when he checks the battery today.
posted by quiet coyote at 8:24 AM on December 12, 2017

Response by poster: I typically charge my phone in the outlet, so the ecig isn’t the only thing using it.
posted by quiet coyote at 8:25 AM on December 12, 2017

I feel like there have been a couple of Car Talk questions like this, where something profoundly unlikely turned out to be the culprit - like this one where it turned out that the random factor actually affected timing to the point that it created the condition that made the car stall.

My point being: maybe examine each and every thing about the conditions the car's in at your place, compared to at your friend's place. (Unless he's coming to your place to get the car FROM you in the morning.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:38 AM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a similar issue with my 2006 Scion xB. On cold mornings the battery would be drained. Turns out there was a short in the headlight controls that was turning them on when the temperature dropped below freezing.
posted by zinon at 8:43 AM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Two questions I have not seen asked yet . Has the weather been very cold? How old is the battery? Cold weather and an old battery would cause the car to not start.
posted by tman99 at 8:43 AM on December 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

How long is he driving the car for when he uses it and is that different from you? I have a 'weak' battery (soon to be replaced) and if I'm not driving it for longer stretches (at least a 20-30 min drive) it's like the battery doesn't reach and hold a full charge. It starts fine as long as I've been driving a lot. If it's just short car trips on one day (like a 5 min drive) then the next day/time I go to start it, it's dead.
posted by fourpotatoes at 8:50 AM on December 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I was told by a mechanic (within the last decade) that some cars have a security "feature" whereby it detects and anticipates your usual speed/angle/something of inserting the key and turning the ignition, and if it's started in a markedly different way, the car will go into lockdown. It's possible the mechanic in question was full of it.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 8:58 AM on December 12, 2017

Response by poster: He’s parking the car at his place overnight. He has to travel around the state for work, often 1-4 hours each way, whereas I mostly use it for brief errands (usually no farther than 30 minutes). He drove me to and from Portland in my car this weekend and it was fine. It’s been in the 30s/40s here in Seattle overnight, although it’s possible that it’s a few degrees cooler in West Seattle where he lives.
posted by quiet coyote at 9:00 AM on December 12, 2017

Didn't we have question here that involved some sort of proximity sensor left over from the dealer. When they borrow it are they using the same key/fob that you use?
posted by humboldt32 at 9:01 AM on December 12, 2017

Rear-window defrost button on?
posted by idb at 9:04 AM on December 12, 2017

We used to have this problem with a copy of our key - it was exactly the same as the dealer key, but the car thought it was a fake and somebody was trying to steal the car, so it wouldn't start.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 9:25 AM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay we may be on to something with the rear-window defroster. He said he noticed it was on when he got to work and he doesn't remember turning it on this morning. He likes to drive with the window cracked to smoke his ecig, which maybe is leading to him using the defroster more than me? I hardly use it, but it would never occur to me that I'd need to turn it off when I turned the car off- I'm sure I've done that before, but maybe not recently.

I'm googling around but the car forums that discuss this are a bit hard to parse. It sounds like maybe there can be issues with the wiring that make the defroster draw power even when the car is off. At least that would give me a lead on something to ask my mechanic to check.

He does use a different key, also provided by the dealer, but the car is super low frills and I'd be shocked if it had any system for detecting a fake. I'll trade keys with him just in case.
posted by quiet coyote at 9:30 AM on December 12, 2017

Is that battery, in fact, dead? How are you testing that? And how are you getting it restarted?
posted by humboldt32 at 9:44 AM on December 12, 2017

Response by poster: It doesn't turn on when he turns the key. He's gotten it jumped each time.
posted by quiet coyote at 9:47 AM on December 12, 2017

Could be an immobilizer issue, especially if the key has batteries that haven’t been replaced in a while. If it works when you switch keys, that would make it more likely.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 10:07 AM on December 12, 2017

Response by poster: If it was a key issue, I'd assume jumping it wouldn't work. The keys don't have batteries.
posted by quiet coyote at 10:09 AM on December 12, 2017

We had this exact problem when we borrowed a friend's car a few years ago. Turns out we were using higher-quality gasoline (we were trying to be nice!) than the car was engineered for.
posted by Mchelly at 10:24 AM on December 12, 2017

I'm not at home, so I can't verify right now, but my wife drives a 2006 xA, and I believe that if you have the headlight switch on and turn off the ignition, the headlights go out, but the parking lights do not. I drive a car that automatically shuts all the lights when the ignition is off, so I have to be extra careful to shut the lights in the Scion off manually. There is a buzzer that reminds you to shut the lights off completely, but it is easy to miss if you are getting out of the car in a hurry or are otherwise preoccupied.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:57 AM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I agree with JoeZydeco that it could be a weak alternator; it's getting dark pretty early now as well as cold, and if he's driving a significant distance with the lights on, the defroster on, the heater on, the ecig on, and then parking it overnight, the battery could have been discharging rather than charging the whole trip home.
posted by jamjam at 12:33 PM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Is it possible that the night before the car won’t start, he is turning it on, moving it a few feet or yards, and then turning it off immediately?
posted by bq at 2:06 PM on December 12, 2017

I have a 2007 Scion tC and am pretty sure the key fobs don't do anything fancy. They do lock and unlock and panic and somehow recharge when they're being used. The worst is you haven't used your key in a while and it's dead and you have to manually lock/unlock the door. Be prepared for the back to just lock up and stop unlatching, don't yank really hard or you'll rip that whole thing off. I can't count the number of old Scion's I've seen with two bolts poking out holding that button/lift thing in place. (Mine is fixed with a wonderful application of bits of sheet metal and epoxy and replacing that rubber coated button that got nasty sticky gross with a door bell button.)

If you rule out the other things, I'd vote alternator. I've driven cars that you had to keep the revs up or they would stop and the battery only actually charges if you're going > 30 mph or so. But if friend is driving long and far and your trips are short... sorta backwards.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:03 PM on December 12, 2017

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