Cars Should Tell You What is Wrong

I'm kind of wondering about car maintenance because I drive a nine year old car with 211,000 kms. on the odo, which runs fairly well, does not have too much rust (this is Quebec, they salt the roads, the cars rust rather quickly.) but, is kind of disheartening. The Engine Check light comes on whenever it is damp, and goes out after a couple of days. When the car was young, I used to take it to the dealer, and they would kind of shrug. The computer would be telling them to replace some 500$ part, and they knew it was kind of bogus. After a few years (it happenned once every six months or at the time.) They figured out it was the ignition cables, that had issues when it was wet.

Once the alternator died with no warning. Another time, a radiator hose broke. I didn't like much being stuck by the highway with the wife, the children and the domestica animals. You know, I remember back in the seventies and eighties, this was kind of normal stuff, and you just dealt with it, and I am. But cars have become a sort of utility, especially in single car families.

The automotive industry today tests for durability, and they have other concerns, like reducing weight to improve fuel consumption, and ensure that things crumble optimally in an accident. The durability tests for components, in my experience, mean that, at around 180,000 kms. stuff starts to break. regardless of make/model. This will only get worse, as car components are increasingly being cost driven and the same contractors sell parts to multiple suppliers. Brand name is less and less an indicator of component quality.

This tells me that 180,000 kms. is about the limit of durability one can expect when keeping in mind cost and other factors. For the car maker, this is past the reasonable point of testing, and they probably want you to buy a new car. It used to be that a reasonable person with a screw driver, a feeler guage, and a few wrenches, could maintain a car literally forever. Those days are long gone. They have become far more complicated. For owners, there is the obvious cost reason to keep the car past that point, but there is also the planet to consider. Sure cars can be recycled, but it is probably much better to just maintain the car you have (assuming it isn't a gas guzzler.) If you want to keep a car beyond that point, the most important thing to you is: how easy are these cars to diagnose and repair? Because that tells you how much time and money you will be spending on maintenance, which is the only major cost once the car is paid. It has become less practical over the past few decades, to keep cars as long as they will last, paradoxically, because QA testing and engineering have improved, so that whereas before, a component would be over-engineered and last forever, now it is made to be 'just right' (not too heavy, not too expensive, not too... durable.)

This should not be that hard. If you design the vehicle with enough sensors, and enough software, it would very likely do a great job of diagnosing itself. It is a good economic investment for the owner that plans to keep the car for a very long time to have really good sensors and diagnostics, because then a repair for an obscure electrical problem will be 1 hour's labour instead of 6. Maintaining an older car could be relatively easy.

Today, I've seen it time and again, people do not get electrical problems fixed simply because it will be too expensive in terms of labour. This should be much simpler. The problem is how to get the motivations in place so that there is an economic incentive for car makers to making older cars easier to maintain.


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