Letter Re: Modern Motor Vehicle Reliability

I have worn many hats, but the one I wore the longest was as a 12-volt installer. You know, stereos, alarms, custom fabrication; think Unique Whips, but with less drama and more snow (I live in Canada). After working as a mechanic, it seemed a lot more interesting and enjoyable than getting filthy fixing other people’s problems.                 What I have learned during my years working on vehicles has led to a personal conviction: I will never rely on a newer vehicle. I have seen too many newer vehicles  brought in on a hook with no-start issues, no-shift issues, and have diagnosed my fair share of gremlins. In the end, almost all of the problems result from over-complexity and/or cost-saving shortcuts taken during the design and manufacturing process.

My goal here is to inform any who might not already know how this could affect them in the future. Did you know that if you remove the factory radio in almost any GM vehicle manufactured after the year 2000, you run the risk of throwing error codes,  and possibly preventing the air bag from deploying in an accident?  For some unknown reason, GM decided to incorporate body control module (BCM) code storage into the radio. While it isn’t likely that your radio acting up will affect how the vehicle runs, and regardless of how you feel about airbags, this is just the tip of the iceberg on modern vehicle over-complexity.                

One reason I would never trust any part of my survival to a modern (2000+) computer-controlled vehicle is the factory anti-theft (immobilizer) system. This is the system that only allows the vehicle to start if a sensor detects a code from your key, and is integrated with factory computers to kill the ignition, fuel, etc. This is a major issue that receives little attention, but could leave a lot of people stranded when they need it the least, as it is now standard in virtually every new vehicle manufactured. An important “What If” to keep in mind is that in the event of a powerful EMP, the more miniaturized (modern) a circuit is, the more likely it is to fail.                

In the last 12 years, I have watched these immobilizer systems transform from robust resistor-code systems into highly-integrated computer modules that operate with very little margin for error and fail on a regular basis. The issue isn’t so much how they perform now, when your vehicle computer can be reset after a quick tow to the dealership, but rather later, when you’re on your own to fix them                

Nobody wants to have their vehicle stolen, but if they knew the potential cost of having such a vulnerable immobilizer system, they might choose an older vehicle with an expertly-installed aftermarket alarm system with ignition and starter-cut relays that are normally closed (your vehicle will still start if the system fails). This is not true with the immobilizer systems in modern vehicles. They are effectively designed as normally open, meaning if the immobilizer fails, the starting and/or ignition circuit can not be energized or even bypassed without some major rewiring. Some vehicles are too complicated even for a automotive electrical specialist at a large car dealership to rewire; the experts are trained to find faulty parts and replace them, not bypass failed systems. Another serious issue involves modern engine management systems. In modern vehicles, every aspect of engine management relies on a network of electronic sensors and modules linked to an engine-control computer; to adjust fuel mixture and spark timing, communicate with the transmission-control computer and it’s electronic sensors, and even to control the throttle! Industry is praised for every new “improvement” of automotive design, but some things should remain mechanical.

Please, do not buy a vehicle with a fly-by-wire electronic gas pedal. What’s next, replacing electric-assist steering with fully electric steering, with no mechanical connection between the driver and the front wheels? Why not fully electric brakes too? It’s bad enough that a modern automatic transmission doesn’t shift without its computer. Never mind if a $4 part fails and your electronic throttle stops listening to your right foot.   Thanks to competitive cost-cutting and corporate pursuit of profit, the parts that make up these vehicles are of the lowest acceptable quality, can require special tools to service, and are not repairable. It used to be that when your engine or transmission started to wear out, you could pay a mechanic/specialist to rebuild it, and save a lot of money versus buying a new engine. Today’s engine and transmissions are “modular”. This is a tasteful way of calling them “disposable”; they can’t be rebuilt, only replaced. The reason you can buy a new vehicle for the same price you could 10+ years ago is because CEOs and engineers work night and day to wring profit out of every penny in car sales. Most parts-manufacturing is now outsourced to a foreign country with cheaper labor (thanks to free-trade agreements). Nothing is overbuilt anymore; engineers cut corners and reduce costs by designing vehicle components to be just good enough. These parts are usually manufactured in a different country. If there is a war that interferes with imported goods , or the American( and Canadian) dollar continues to be devalued, we may not be able to buy cheap parts from other countries anymore. It is likely that we will continue to slide for quite some time before the bottom falls out, so giving some thought to buying an older American vehicle is a good idea. We will still be driving while things around us keep getting worse, so you may as well be able to trust your vehicle, or at least be able to fix some things yourself with parts that are manufactured in your own country.                

For the record, I drive a 1985 Toyota 4Runner. It’s fuel-injected, with a computer, but it is a robust system (comparatively speaking), and I keep replacement electronic parts in an ammo can, just in case something/everything fails. I also have the parts to replace the fuel injection with a carburetor and an old points ignition system. It’s an import, but I have stored enough spare parts to replace almost everything, and most things twice. I’m not telling anyone what to drive; there are a lot of experts out there who know a lot more than me. This is just a subject I don’t see discussed often enough. Quality and simplicity are the keys to reliability and ease of maintenance, and these days newer isn’t better. Please excuse me if I am preaching to the choir. This is for those who don’t already know, and to give a gentle push to those who do but might still be relying  on a vehicle that could really leave them up schumer creek without a paddle, choosing which supplies to leave behind before they set out on foot. Happy motoring.