The New-Car Smell: Happy or Hazardous?

Ah. Eau de new car. For some, it’s a smell that’s as delicious and indefinable as the feeling of driving off in a brand new automobile. For others, the overpowering scent raises some health and safety concerns.

But what causes that new-car smell exactly? Is it a cologne manufactured by automakers to entice would-be car buyers? How long does it last? Can you get rid of it?

The intoxicating facts about the new-car smell

Well, it turns out that the enticing new-car smell actually comes from the materials used in the car’s interior — paint, upholstery, plastic, adhesives, sealers, etc. These new materials, while pleasing to the eyes, release (or off-gas, if you want the technical term) a cocktail of chemicals such as bromine, chlorine, formaldehyde, and phthalates (we can’t say that last one either).

These carbon-based chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), can be toxic to human health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exposure to VOCs can aggravate allergy and asthma symptoms; cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; and induce headaches. It’s uncertain, however, whether or not the chemicals off-gassed in new cars’ interiors can cause long-term health-effects (or what these health-effects may be) as no published research exists on the subject.

Detox your car

The new-car smell will fade over time and with it the level of potentially harmful chemicals. But if you’d prefer to take matters into your own hands, here are a few tips to detox your car:

  • Air it out. During the first 6 months of ownership, when the new-car smell is strongest, ventilate your car whenever possible. When you drive with your windows open, you allow the accumulated contaminants to circulate (and leave your vehicle), leading to a drop in VOC levels.
  • Seek out shade. Since heat and ultraviolet light can cause VOCs to break down and become airborne, keep your car cool by parking it in the shade, using reflective sun shades, or tinting your windows.
  • Keep your car clean. When researchers tested the level of VOCs in autos (PDF), they collected dust and residue from windshields for their sample — which means that the dust in your car contains many chemicals. Weekly vacuuming and dusting will go a long way toward keeping you and your car healthy.
  • Invest in a good air filter. HEPA air filters with activated charcoal membranes can help reduce your exposure and keep your cabin air fresh and clean.

Then again, if you love that scintillating new-car smell, no need to do anything at all. Keep your windows rolled tight and your heater on for maximized new-car smell enjoyment.

Weigh in. Do you love or loath the new-car smell?



5 Best Road Trip Classics of All Time

With summer winding down into its dog days and road-trip season coming to an end, many of us long to recapture the magic of the road. Thankfully, the annals of literature are chock-full of classics that aim to do just that, allowing us the sense of freedom that summer sun and flying down the highway evoke. Here’s our round-up of enduring road trip classics that will help you keep that summertime adventurous feeling going strong all year long.

1. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

“Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

We know, it’s a gimme. But it’s hard to beat (get it?) this all-time American classic. In an age when the world hadn’t yet heard of fossil fuels and the ozone layer, and the road still represented boundless freedom and possibility, Kerouac’s classic inspired generations to seek excitement (and themselves) behind the wheel.

Legend holds that Jack typed his opus in 3 Benzedrine-fueled weeks at about 100 words per minute on a scroll composed of letter-sized sheets taped together at their ends. And while the truth is that Jack wrote, revised, and rewrote the novel over the course of 6 years while trying to find a publisher, the scroll part is true.

You can pick up a faithful reproduction of the original draft in trade paperback form, or find an unabridged edition of the audio version read by another American literary legend, Cormac McCarthy.

2. Travels With Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. …The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

In this ostensibly true travelogue, Steinbeck sets out from his Sag Harbor, Long Island, home with his full-size poodle, Charley, to take a turn around the whole of the United States. Behind the wheel of his pickup truck, Rocinante (a nod to another quixotic traveler and literary giant), Steinbeck visits and details Deer Island, Maine; Niagara Falls, New York; Yellowstone Park; California’s Avenue of the Giants (where he comes closer than any author to capturing the breathtaking stateliness of giant redwoods); his beloved Monterey; and dozens of other notable sites.

If you’d like to model your drive off Steinbeck’s, check out this interactive map. An audio version read by actor Gary Sinise is available.

3. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe

“You’re either on the bus or off the bus.”

Tom Wolfe, one of the founders of the “New Journalism” movement, which sought to bring voice and creativity back to the supposedly objective world of news journalism, got on the bus (Furthur) with Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and a cohort of hippies (the Merry Pranksters) to “prank” the United States. “Prank” here translates to “attempt to open people’s minds through the liberal application of hallucinogens.” While we certainly wouldn’t suggest replicating any of Neal Cassady’s driving techniques (who was, not at all coincidentally, also the primary driver in On the Road), the book makes for some raucously fun road reading — not to mention an invaluable portrait of hippie America.

You’ll find cheap paperback copies of this one in just about any used bookstore on the planet, and audio versions should be equally easy to track down.

4. James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl

“Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.”

While not really a road trip book, it’s an all-time favorite, and revolves around a rather fantastic journey, making it a good choice for those looking to recapture a slice of their childhood or just a good bedtime story for the kids. Packed with magic seeds, insects “as large as a large dog,” and a humungous, flying stone fruit, Dahl’s classic proves entertaining for kids and just delightfully twisted enough to engage adult minds too.

You can pick up an audio version of the book that includes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Enormous Crocodile too — best of all, the author does the reading himself.

5. I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away, by Bill Bryson

“Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding.”

After living in England for 2 decades, American author Bill Bryson returns to the states and starts a cross-country road trip, making hilarious and insightful observations along the way. He travels (alone) through the Heartland, the Deep South, the tiny Northeastern states, and the sprawling West, trying to rediscover (and make sense of) his native country. Short of loading a sleeping bag in the car and driving a few thousand miles across the states and back, this book is the best way to experience all the beauty, quirk, contradiction, and vastness that is America.

Audio and good-ole-fashioned print versions of the book are available in all the usual places.

Have a road-trip-related favorite we missed? Tell us all about it on our Facebook page.

How to Avoid a Hurricane

If you’re on the Eastern Seaboard, there’s a good chance you’re tracking Hurricane Irene right now. And if you’re one of the thousands of people evacuating the area, keep these tips from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in mind:

Don’t wait.

If you know the storm’s heading your way, don’t wait for an official evacuation order. Leave as soon as possible to get a jumpstart on both traffic and worsening weather.

Stay close.

To minimize the amount of time you spend traveling, select the evacuation destination that’s nearest to your home.

Be patient.

You’re probably not the only one trying to get out of Dodge, so plan for traffic and congestion on your exit route. Be patient and remember that everyone has the same goal you do: safety.

Make reservations.

If you’re headed to a hotel, be aware that inland hotels could book up fast. Make a reservation before you hit the road.

Use a shelter as a last resort.

Because shelters are uncomfortable and usually don’t take pets, check in only as a last resort. If at all possible, stay with family, friends, or at a hotel.

And if you’re driving when the storm hits, read our insight on how to keep yourself and your car safe.

More hurricane preparedness tips

NHC’s guide for building a disaster supply kit
NHC’s guide for securing your home
FEMA’s hurricane tips

The History of the Car Radio: From Morse Code to Mixtapes

Compared to iPods, satellite radio, and Pandora mobile, AM/FM radio may seem as technologically hip as a Victrola. But when the car radio made its debut in the 1920s, it was the hottest thing to hit the streets, blending 2 of the nation’s great loves: music and cars.

To honor our beloved car radio, the invention that made road trips more fun, and long, straight stretches of blacktop more bearable, we unearthed a bit of car radio history.

1906: Music is heard on air

In the early days of radio, only Morse code could be transmitted through the airwaves. But that changed on Christmas Eve 1906, when Reginald Aubrey Fessenden spoke into a microphone from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, to ships at sea. Shocked shipboard operators on the Atlantic heard Fessenden read a passage from the Bible, play a recording of Handel’s “Largo,” and fiddle “O Holy Night” (which, incidentally, makes these the first songs to be broadcast on the radio.)

1920: The first U.S. radio broadcast license granted

Though Fessenden’s broadcast caused a wave of excitement, it took 14 more years for the first commercial radio station to be born. On October 27, 1920, KDKA in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, obtained the first broadcast license. About a week later, on November 2, they aired the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election.

The nation was enchanted, radio stations proliferated, and radio became America’s new favorite form of entertainment.

1922(ish): The first car radio debuts

Naturally, entranced listeners wanted to take this new form of entertainment with them on the road. So not long after commercial radio broadcasting was born, the first car radios began to appear.

The early history of the car radio, however, is a little unclear. Legend has it that George Frost, an 18-year-old radio enthusiast from Chicago, was the first person to attach a portable radio to the passenger door of his Ford Model T. No one knows if it’s actually true, but it makes for a good story anyway.

1930: Car radios go commercial

Although commercial car radios hit the market in the late 1920s, it wasn’t until Galvin Manufacturing Company (now known as Motorola) introduced the Motorola 5T71 radio that commercial car radios really became popular. (In fact, the name “Motorola” is a combination of the words “motor” and “Victrola.”)

The first Motorola radios were expensive (estimated by some to cost around $130) and wildly popular. Sales of the Motorola 5T71 reached all the way across the border into Mexico.

1952: FM car radio

Edwin Howard Armstrong invented FM radio in 1933, but in the early days, people preferred AM radio for its top 40 hits. It wasn’t until 1979 that FM audience levels finally surpassed AM.

1953: The search function

Widely considered by many to be the first luxury car radio, the Mexico by German manufacturer Becker featured both AM/FM and the first fully automated “seek” feature!

Radio and beyond

Though the radio is still alive and well today, new technologies introduced over the years gave drivers more options to rock out while on the road. Here are some notables:

1965: The 8-track

8-tracks may seem like a throwback, but in 1965 they represented the culmination of hard work and ingenuity. Developed by Learjet Corporation, the 8-track tape housed in its plastic cartridge a continuous loop of magnetic tape that held a total of — you guessed it — 8 tracks.

1970s: Cassette players, mixtapes, and cars

Though Phillips introduced the cassette in 1964, it was in the 1970s that car cassette players became a standard feature, putting Americans and mixtapes on the open road.

1980 to 2011: The death of the cassette and the birth of rocking technology

The cassette player, now defunct in all new cars, revolutionized the way drivers listened to music, enabling them to rock out to their favorite songs at the push of the button. But, alas, revolutions come and go. In 1982, Sony released the CD…and the rest, you know, is history.

Related resources

MTV’s history of mixtapes

Young Drivers and Car Insurance

Nothing’s quite as exciting as getting the keys to the car and heading out on your own for the very first time. But if you’re a parent with young drivers in the house, you probably know how nerve-wracking this can be as well. Amidst the driver tests and practice runs, it can be easy to forget about car insurance. That’s to be expected — the thought of coverages, limits, and deductibles is likely the last thing on your mind as you watch your child get behind the wheel and drive off to … wherever it is teens drive to these days.

But before you hand over the keys to the station wagon, you need to talk car insurance. And car insurance for teens is not exactly the same as car insurance for grown ups. You might think you know everything you need to know, but do you really? Take our short quiz to find out.

1. A 17-year-old pizza delivery driver comes to a stop … halfway through his customer’s garage door. Will his personal car insurance policy cover the damages?

a) Yes.
b) No, he needs a commercial policy to cover incidents that happen while delivering.
c) No, the employer’s insurance will cover the damages.

Find out.

2. How much more likely are 16-year-old drivers to be involved in a fatal accident than 20- to 24-year-olds?

a) 2.5 times more likely.
b) 50 times more likely.
c) No more likely.

Find out.

3. You live in Nevada, and your scholarly daughter is off to the Ivy League. She’s taking her car to college and is currently covered on your car insurance policy. Will she:

a) Still be covered by your policy?
b) Need to get a new policy all her own?
c) Stop driving altogether after joining a radical movement?

Find out.

If you answered these correctly, then bravo. You’re probably in good shape to make sure your young driver has the coverage he or she needs. If not, then you may want to check out our Young driver FAQs.

In addition to the above, you’ll also find info on:

  • Why young drivers pay more on average
  • How to save on young driver car insurance
  • Graduated licensing laws, parent-driver contracts, and cutting-edge technology to keep young drivers safer on the road

Check out our Young driver FAQs for everything you need to know about car insurance for your teen. And good luck!