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Nuées Ardentes

Normally, I like to let my posting ideas season a bit, to the point that they flow forth smoothly, much like the lava from Kilauea. No such luck here: today's events generated so much annoyance that I figured I'd harness that energy and use it to unleash a scathing pyroclastic flow that blasts down the mountainside at upwards of two hundred miles an hour, incinerating everything in its path.

I was making my customary Monday morning traversal of Rhode Island on the way to work, which involves using I-295 to bypass Providence proper. (It works out pretty well; it can be a wash in terms of time, but if there's traffic through the city it's a clear win, and either way it's an easier drive.) So here I am, piloting the vehicle through the countryside of northern Rhode Island at just about the speed of sound posted speed limit, when, all of a sudden, BEEP and the "tire pressure warning" annunciator lights up on the instrument cluster.

This isn't the first BMW I've owned, and I have enough history with these fine examples of German automotive engineering to know that:

  1. when something goes BEEP and lights up, it needs to be checked out; and
  2. it's usually because a sensor went bad, not because something's actually broken

Fortunately, I'm pretty close to an exit, so I take it, and for a wonder there's a gas station/convenience store right there at the end of the ramp. Perfect. So I pull up next to the air vending machine (yes, they charge for air now), grab the tire pressure gauge out of the glove box, and hop out. Left front, OK. Left rear, OK. Right front, OK. Right rear ...shit. It's already visibly soft, and I can hear the air coming out. Well, not to worry — I'm a grownup, I can handle this sort of thing. I take a moment to reflect: this is the first flat tire I've had on the road in well over ten years. It's also highly ironic, because I had an appointment this very morning to stop at my BMW mechanic's to have the winter wheels and tires mounted.

The M3 doesn't actually have a spare tire. Instead, it comes with something called the "M Mobility System", which is a can of what seems to be latex sealant, and an electric compressor that you plug into the cigarette lighter socket. The instructions are in the owner's manual, and they go like this:

  1. Shake the sealant container. (Instructions don't say for how long.)
  2. Connect the hose from the sealant container to the valve on the flat tire.
  3. Connect the hose from the compressor to the valve on the sealant container.
  4. Plug in the compressor.
  5. Run the compressor for three minutes.
  6. Disconnect the sealant container from the tire.
  7. Disconnect the compressor from the sealant container.
  8. Drive the car for a couple of miles to distribute the sealant.
  9. Pull over, and use the compressor to inflate the tire to 29psi.

That's a lot of steps, but individually and collectively, they're doable. However, the lack of an actual spare (even a donut) was a cause for small concern when I chose the car, but I figured the odds were on my side - as I said, flats were a very infrequent occurrence in my driving life. Still, I like to be covered, and I would prefer having an actual spare to having to rely on the Mobility System — especially since Car and Driver had a less-than-confidence-inspiring experience with the Mobility System.


With owner's manual handy, I follow the instructions closely. The first sign that something's wrong is that at step (6), disconnecting the sealant from the tire results in a blast of sealant under pressure, which gets all over the outside of the tire near the valve stem, to say nothing of coating my hands in latex (or whatever polymer is used). Worse, there's no visible increase in the tire's pressure, which there should have been after injecting the air and sealant. However, since the instructions clearly say "It does not matter what the tire's inflation pressure is afterward," I forge on to the next step, distributing the sealant. This basically involves driving the car on a flat tire for a couple of miles, something which goes against everything I know to be right. But I do it for about a mile anyway, taking great care to avoid any pavement features that might damage the rim or tire. I make it an out-and-back, so that I end up back at the convenience store.

This turns out to have been a smart move: upon connecting the air compressor and applying power, no air goes into the tire.


After repeated fruitless attempts to get air into the tire, I finally break down and call AAA. They are polite and efficient, and give me an arrival window of 10:30 to noon. Ugh. Well, better late than never, and at least it's sunny and sixty-something outside, and not the middle of New England winter, in the teens, and/or snowing. Fifteen minutes later, they call, but I don't get the phone in time (I'm busy scraping bits of latex off my hands) so I call back. "We'll have someone there by 11:30." Better.

11:30 comes and goes, and a little past noon I call 1-800-AAA-HELP again, to find out when I can expect my flatbed. Guess what? They cancelled the call! "Someone from Sal's Towing (not the real name - I can't recall it now) didn't call to confirm that they were on the way?" says AAA. "Who the hell is Sal's Towing?", say I, rather peeved. (You would be too, if you'd been cooling your heels for two hours with a flat tire.) So they start a new dispatch ticket. "They're saying 1:00 to 1:30 now, but I'll try to expedite it." Damn right you will. Note to self: Write scathing letter to AAA to find out what procedural fuckup could result in something like this. Grr.

Fortunately, the tow truck arrives slightly ahead of schedule - around 12:50pm, if memory serves. Jason the driver is friendly and efficient, and soon enough the wounded soldier is up on a flatbed, ready for transport to the nearest MASH. My sweetie totally rocks, and she did some legwork while I was waiting for the tow. Turns out that Hamel's Tire Center is just a mile and a half down the road, so I called over there. Bob answered the phone, and said "Sure, when the tow truck shows up, have him bring you here and we can patch the tire for you."

Unfortunately, it was not to be. We roll up, the tow truck driver suggests that I run inside to find out if they can take me now and if so where he should set the car down. Turns out to be a wise choice: Bob comes out, looks at the tires and says "Oh, the owner won't let us patch any tire that has higher than an H rating." (The M3 comes with Z-rated tires.) Now, it's perfectly OK to patch a Z-rated tire, you just can't operate it safely at its maximum rated speed (160mph). For purposes of getting me fifty miles to get the whole thing changed out, a patch would be just fine. However, Bob is intransigent and unempowered - the owner won't let anyone do it, so Bob's not gonna try, and there's nothing I can do to convince him. Batting my eyelashes was a miserable failure.

So, back on the road, this time to Cumberland Tire Center (which appears to be a front for Galinda's Automotive Service). The door's open, but the shop is ominously dark and silent. Just as I'm coming out, though, a mechanic comes around the corner and asks if he can help. (English is clearly his second language, but this turns out not to be a problem.) I explain that I need to get air in a flat tire, and that it may need a patch. No problem! He can help. So off the flatbed comes the car, and Cesar (for that is his name) drags out a jack, pops the wheel, and rolls it into the shop.

Given the amount of time I've had to ponder my situation, I'm pretty sure what the problem is with getting the tire inflated. Basically, the valve core is clogged with sealant. This happened because the sealant tank for the so-called "M Mobility System" needs to be emptied into the tire, so that at the end of the sealant injection, air under pressure flows through the valve and blows any liquid sealant out before it can harden in the valve core. Unfortunately, the so-called "Mobility System" suffers from a serious design flaw: there is no way to tell when the sealant tank is empty. Presumably, the "run the compressor for three minutes" step in the instructions is intended to empty the tank, but it didn't in this case, which is why I got a blowback of sealant when disconnecting the hose.

Sure enough, Cesar's industrial-strength compressor can't get air into the tire, and so I ask him to unscrew the valve core. Yep. As suspected, it's clogged with hardened sealant. A new valve core later, and the tire is fully inflated. It holds the pressure, which is a good sign - it means the sealant actually worked. $15 to the shop owner (Mr. Galinda, who courteously thanks me for choosing his shop), and a $20 tip to Cesar for taking care of me so efficiently, and I'm off.

So: bouquet and a plug to Galinda's Automotive Service, 94 Broad Street, Cumberland RI 02864, 401-728-7120.

Massive wedgie to BMW. I understand some of the decisions that resulted in their decision to use a sealant/inflator system. Really, I do. However, for a piece of emergency equipment to operate in such a failure-prone fashion is, in my opinion as a consumer affected by that selfsame failure, inexcusable.

Despite the wasted day, all ended up well - I made it to Chip's, the winter wheels and tires are in place and working fine, and when it's time to re-mount the summer wheels (typically mid-April), I'll pony up for replacement rear tires. Run-flats, if I can get 'em...


Shocking what kind of things companies will do to their customers.

Awesome car, though. I think I can survive one flat every five years to be driving one of the better cars on the road.

You might want to do some research on run-flats before you take the plunge. Some models have had awful problems-- including bursting into flames.

Personally, I won't patch a tire. It gives me the gibblies just thinking about it. Of course, your situation is a little different since you were on the verge of changing into winter tires anyway.

I suspect the sealant BMW issues is essentially the same as the fix-a-flat stuff available in automotive stores. I keep a can on my motorcycle and have put it to good use twice, once on my own bike and once on another. Perhaps the stuff available from your automotive store would be of higher quality than the BMW-issued sealant, but if that is true it shouldn't be.

My experiences with AAA have been similar. Perhaps there is a more '1337 version of the same service from another company.

I get about one flat a year.It's always a piece of metal or a screw or nail. I have the silly donut temperary tire. It's sightly better than M mobility,
but not much. They sell the same tire patch kits the tire centers use at auto parts stores. Just get one of those and learn to use it. They are not hard to use. It consists of glue, plugs, and a tool to widen the hole and insert the plug.
And carry pliers to remove the metal. Also, I discovered the magic code word with AAA that will get a wrecker to you faster: "emergency". Now I am not advocating lying, but blocking traffic or your car being in a dangerous position is considered an emergency. So if this is indeed the case, make sure to tell them. I was stalled in the middle of a back road for two hours once. I waited and waited for AAA. Then I called back and the operator finally figured out that I was in the road and a cop and a wrecker was at my location in 10 minutes. I just never thought to mention the actual car situatiom

Hmmm, I guess that Mailsmith update is delayed some more now

I drive in the West - mostly on freeways but also a good bit of two-lane roads. I have a BMW 540i. I wouldn't buy one if it didn't have a spare. Catastrophic tire failure happens, especially on high performance tires - a piece of metal, a jagged piece of glass and suddenly it's slasher-city along your tire and there ain't nothing no jug of GOO is gonna do to get that fixed. You need a SPARE TIRE. It happens. It happened last week. Spares are good. Goo is bad unless you're a metro driver.

Patches to get you to a place you can replace your tire: good. Liability laws make people do crazy things.

I think BMW needs to go through the spankin' machine. That "device" sounds like the same stuff I have that cost me about $6 at Target. Tsk tsk. You should have a spare, but where? Where? Not with that big ass subwoofer in your trunkee-poo.

Luckily, CT AAA has been well behaved the many times I've called on them, but that doesn't mean they can have a bad day, too.

Glad you are SAFE!