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December 20, 2010

We had just returned from a ten-day Seabourn Sojourn Caribbean cruise, where, similar to a previous one, Peep & Flo enjoyed the Champagne and Caviar – here, at St. Barts. [If you follow the various links starting at the previous cruise, you can learn more about Peep & Flo.]

Having taken a taxi from the airport, I now headed out for groceries.

Like some other cars today, the Corvette has an electronic fob

which transmits a signal so the car recognizes you as friendly even at a distance, allowing you to press a button under the trunk overhang to open it, to squeeze a pad at the edge of the door to open it, and to press a button on the dashboard to start the car. Of course, you can also press the appropriate button to lock or unlock the doors or open the trunk before you arrive.

Except all I heard was a few clicks. Although the battery had run down once before, it was after a much longer trip. Also, unlike this time, my iPod FM transmitter, by which I listen to audio books over the radio, had been plugged into the always-on power outlet. After having the battery jumped that time, I took it to the dealer, who performed a firmware update, although not in so many words, which they claimed would prevent a future recurrence.

This time I found that there wasn’t even sufficient power for the interior door push buttons to work – I was locked in! After a few anxious minutes looking around for a secret switch, I resorted to consulting the manual, which identified the levers on the floor (one on each side) that would open the adjacent door. I suddenly realized that knowing their operation could be handy in case of an accident! For those of you with similar electric door latches, do you know your backup alternative? Fortunately, although the manual was locked in the glove box, that lock wasn't electronic.

So I went into the house and called Chevrolet Road Service. After traversing a long phone tree of questions, including the last 8 digits of my VIN – the first time, I counted back too far; fortunately I was given to opportunity to re-enter it, without having to hang up and call again – I was able to talk to a human. She said they’d canvass their network and send out the nearest road service provider. I soon received an automated phone call that a rescue car coming from Fairfax would be here in 35 minutes.

I went back outside to open the hood, and suddenly realized that being locked in also meant that I was now locked out, and the only way to open the hood was from inside the car. I guess the brain as well as the body does tend to relax after ten days of sun and leisure. I must have been lucky enough the previous time that there was enough juice left in the battery to open the door, both from the inside and later the outside, because I certainly would have remembered being locked in, and out.

Fortunately, I had taken the manual with me, which again had the solution. The first step was to remove the key secreted in the fob and use it in a so-far unnoticed lock cylinder next to the trunk push-button. This was the first time I had found a use for the key other than locking the glove compartment.

From the construction, you can see that a great deal of leverage could be applied. However, the key itself didn't look that robust, so I was cautious in applying pressure. Resistance increased to a point where past experience told me something might be about to break – you may realize what past experience included. I decided to call Road Service again and suggest that they might need to send out someone with more expertise than just how to jump a battery.

This time I didn’t need to work my way through a long phone tree – a recording told me that the number was currently not accepting calls, to call again later!1

Since this was a weekday, I realized that the dealer was open, and called the service department. Dina confirmed that the manual’s description was indeed the only method of entry, but suggested that if I had some lock lubricant perhaps it would make it easier to open.

She also reassured me that even if the key did break, it wasn’t expensive to replace2 – all the smarts are in the fob, unlike other cars whose keys actually open doors and start engines, thus requiring high-tech anti-theft measures in the key itself.

I did have some lock lubricant, so I applied it, waited a few minutes and tried again. It didn’t seem to turn any easier, but I held my breath, applied more pressure, and was rewarded by a click and the trunk lid opened. Fortunately, the key was stronger than I thought.

Now for the second step: “Use the door release tab located on the carpet inside the hatch on the driver’s side of the vehicle. Pull the tab to unlock and unlatch the driver’s door.”

The hatch! Where’s that? There is a storage bin on each side, but when I opened the lid – hatch? – there was no carpet; it was basically an empty box.

So I called Dina to try to clear up this new mystery – and was greeted by her voice mail.

About that time, the rescue car pulled up and I asked the driver if he knew anything about Corvettes. He said he had worked on some, so I showed him the manual’s instructions. He leaned into the trunk and found the elusive tab, on the carpeted side wall – whose location they might have mentioned. So now I know that a trunk lid is actually a hatch – and this isn’t even a foreign car with a translated manual!

Now I opened the hood (which the manual somehow resisted also calling a hatch) and the rescuer asked how close he could drive his car up next to mine. I asked what happened to the separate booster battery that he used the last time. He said that it had exploded during the recent cold spell!

So I moved some large flowerpots along the side of the driveway and he was able to drive close enough for his jumper cables to reach. However, he had a small car with a four-cylinder engine whose puny battery was going to take some time to transfer enough energy to turn over my high-compression V-8.

In the meantime he worriedly confided that he hoped he didn’t run out of gas! His gauge had read Empty when he started out but he hadn’t found a gas station along the way. He agreed that it would indeed be ironic if the rescue car needed a rescue car.

Fortunately, after a few minutes, before that could happen, the engine started and he packed up and drove off in search of a nearby gas station.

Once again disaster had been averted, at least for me.

I remembered having read years ago someone's lament that computers should be as easy to use as cars. Now cars are as difficult to use as computers!

1 Some days later I found the reason for the "not accepting calls" message. The second time I called, I hadn’t scrolled down on my phone as far as “Corvette Road Service,” but stopped at “Corvette,” which was the number of the built-in hands-free cell phone service provided by OnStar. Since not only wasn’t I available to answer the call, even if I was, with the battery being dead, the phone wouldn’t have been able to receive it. I changed the directory listing to "Corvette Cell Phone" – of course now that I’m knowledgeable about all the pitfalls encountered this time, the next test will be a different one. I hope it also will be open book.

Update: The dealer replaced the battery, but just in case that wasn't the only problem, I've found The Battery Butler! A "floating" trickle charger, it maintains the correct charge for as long as necessary with no danger of overcharging. Since the Corvette cigarette lighter is live even when the ignition key is off, I can use the optional adapter. For those that aren't (for example, my previous Miatas) the clamps will do the trick.

2 Afterwards I realized that a broken key could be much more expensive to someone – whether me or the warranty. If it broke off in the lock, the next step might be to have the car trailered to the dealer, some 20 miles away in Gaithersburg, Maryland. And it might not be an easy matter to load it on the trailer from under the carport.

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