Will I ever be able to fix my car again?

 

The automobile is as much an icon of American ingenuity as it is American DIY culture. For years, auto manufactures presented increasingly efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and safe vehicles. While the features of cars improved and computers became increasingly integrated as diagnostic devices, the main locomotive features—engines, fan belts, coolant tubes, and the like—remained essentially the same.

Many people born before Y2K have had experience using basic car repair knowledge in some way. Changing the oil or a battery, spark plug or even a carburetor could, with the right parts and experience, be a weekend project with no labor cost. Many of these cars are still on the road—mass market vehicles with cheap aftermarket parts and (more recently) plenty of YouTube acolytes providing maintenance instruction.

Today, the addition of advanced computer systems across the entire scope of the automobile has created situations even experienced mechanics are unable to comprehend, leading to increased repair costs and decreasing the number of places you might go to repair a vehicle.

Why Computerize?

In the late 1980s, a small, universal port became a standard piece of auto manufacturing. The OBD port allowed mechanics to hook up a diagnostic computer to the car’s computer, giving them access to specific data. The OBD port is still a standard on vehicles today, but the range of information available to someone with the right device has increased dramatically. The number of sensors, electronic systems, and other data-producing doo-dads give us more insight than ever into what’s happening inside our cars.

The problem is that, though we can “see” deeper into what our cars are doing, those same systems make them more difficult to repair.

There are several culprits at work here and, of course, all of them seem well-intentioned. Unfortunately, the advancements and perceived simplicity they provide only serve to pile repair expenses onto the consumer and may even reduce the lifetime of a vehicle.

The Engine Block

In older vehicles, the engine block was easily visible under the hood. The vast majority of parts you may need to replace under the hood could either be accessed from the top or bottom without removing too many unrelated pieces. Today, manufacturers have keyed into the fact that most car owners perform little maintenance themselves (if any), and the most common activities they perform under the hood are oil changes, battery checks, or windshield fluid refills. And with that bit of data on the books, auto manufacturers began created more compact, but less accessible engine blocks.

Open a recently-built car and you’ll probably notice how clean it looks with the engine covered by a large sheet of plastic. Underneath, however, the machinery is more complex than ever. Turbochargers, energy recapture elements, and navigational tools might all be placed under the hood now, creating a sea of sensitive instruments smushed precisely into place. Some of these parts are further sealed to prevent corrosion or tampering, but also prevent simple fixes when something goes wrong. In order to perform a repair, it might be necessary to disassemble half of the engine block—a task not even your mechanic would want to do (and definitely not something they teach in high school auto class).

Apple-fication of Production

Since automakers need to fit all the standard mechanics of a car AND new technologies under the hood, many of them have taken a note from Apple’s specialized fabrication methods to create a snug fit. This is, on one hand, a very smart move. Apple, beginning with the first iPod, has given us highly advanced devices contained in a simple, sexy, and small container. Like a plastic engine block cover, the sleekly designed exterior offers simplicity, usability, and additional protection.

But Apple is also well-known for making products that are nearly impossible to repair without a wealth of background knowledge and specialized tools. Take the most recent iteration of the Macbook Pro. The laptop is beautifully designed and highly functional, but if you need to have it taken apart to replace a part, you probably won’t be able to do it yourself (and if you do, you’ll void your warranty). So you take it to the Apple Store to have them crack open the computer to see what’s wrong… except they can’t get inside either. Most Apple Stores will need to ship your errant machine to one of their repair facilities just to take it apart. No wonder they just came out with a robot who can take their tech apart—it’s too hard for people who don’t know EXACTLY what to do without damaging a circuit board.

And even if you did know how to properly disassemble your computer’s top case enough to void your warranty, any part inside that might be malfunctioning was designed and built by Apple. You might find an aftermarket part online, but since they’re custom built by/for Apple, they probably won’t be cheap.

The same goes for cars. Customized parts designed to fit into very precise spaces means it will be harder to find aftermarket replacements. The standard tubing might be more specialized in your new vehicle. You might need an unusually-sized component. As smarter, more advanced parts are developed, the market will become (is becoming) increasingly de-standardized.

Unnecessary Luxury

In addition to specialized parts which make the car run more efficiently, modern automotives are also trending towards half-hearted luxury electronics which some have dubbed “infotainment.” Onboard touchscreens, heads-up displays, and even perfume atomizers are all nice accessories to have… so long as they’re executed properly. There’s a difference, as most of us know, between a well-thought-out component and something thrown into the mix willy-nilly. A touchscreen with useful functions that’s easy to use is good. A touchscreen that doesn’t work as well as your smartphone screen is bad—and possibly dangerous. A touchscreen that, upon breaking, renders the rest of your car useless is a good business model so long as you don’t mind infuriating your customers.

Growing Pains

Though cars have become increasingly difficult and expensive to disassemble and repair, the advances in technology are ultimately a good thing. As consumers and automakers continue to parse the useful from the novel, new technologies that confound us today should (eventually) become standard. As long as it remains legal to fix our own cars, those of us who wish to continue to maintain our own vehicles, it will mean learning new skills, new tools, and new tricks—very advanced tricks.