Libertarian car buff — only in America, folks! — Eric Peters has a very useful commentary today. The car corporations’ efforts to boost MPG results is producing a major increase in the already mind-boggling complexity of their products. Peters:
For example, turbochargers – sometimes not just one but two of them, staged in sequence (as for example Ford’s new line of “EcoBoost” engines) are becoming a fairly common feature in run-of-the-mill cars. Family cars – even economy cars. Turbos used to be found almost exclusively in performance and luxury cars.
Turbos – which provide an on-demand increase in power – are expensive. So how come they’re being used more and more in economy-minded and family cars? Because they also provide a fuel economy benefit – the flip-side of on-demand power. They permit the use of a smaller-in-size (and so, more economical) engine, which makes the government happy. The on-demand power (as when you want to accelerate quickly to merge with traffic) makes consumers happy – and more, tolerate an engine that would otherwise be too small/weak.
Same goes for the new Auto Stop-Start feature several new cars now come with – again, to try to placate Uncle Sam and his ever-escalating demands for more fuel-efficient cars. Like hybrids, the engine automatically shuts down when the vehicle is stationary – as when it comes to a stop for a traffic light. When the light turns green and the driver presses down on the accelerator pedal, the system automatically restarts the engine. If you drive in a heavily congested area – and do a lot of just-sitting-there – the feature might save you a noticeable amount of gas.
Several automakers are [also] putting “automated manual” transmissions in their cars (for example, the Direct Shift or DSG transmissions used in several new VW models)… also for the fuel efficiency benefit. A computer operates the clutch – and the transmission functions as a conventional automatic, as far as the driving experience is concerned. Just put it in D and off you go. These transmissions are amazing from an engineering/technical point-of-view.
All these new add-ons, however, come with a pretty serious problem: When they fail, they are, as Peters explains, “very expensive things to repair/replace.”
Replacing a crapped-out turbo can easily be a $2,000 job. And if the car has two turbos…
Starter motors – up to now – were designed to start the engine maybe four or six times or so in a given day. What happens to their long-term durability when the duty cycle is much more extreme (perhaps dozens of start-stop cycles every day)? How much will it cost to replace one of these starters?
Fixing a newfangled variable transmission? “[A]bout $2,500-$3,000 is the current going rate.”
More such stuff is in the pipeline.
It’s all neat – but it isn’t free. And when the warranty runs out, it’ll be left to you to foot the bill for repairs. Since some of these things are mandated by law (such as the tire pressure monitors and back-up cameras) you will have to get them fixed, if they stop working. If you want to make it through state “safety” inspection, that is.
And while there’s no law (yet) requiring that a car’s turbocharger be fully functional, if it’s not fully functional, the car won’t function very well – if at all. Which means – again – you’ve pretty much got to get it fixed.
Or get a new car.
The bottom line could be that we are finally on the threshold of something many (me included) have feared would eventually come to pass: The era of the throw-away car. The complexity of new car design is reaching a kind of apotheosis – a point of no return as far as what you might call economic fixability is concerned. You buy it, it works great for a period of time. And when it stops working great, you throw it away. Because it’s just too damn expensive to repair it.
It’s entirely possible, I think, that warranty coverages will reflect this. The industry-best is now 10 years/100k. That will probably become the de facto standard.
All this, of course, is simply logical. Cars are the purest expression of the dictatorial lifestyle mandates of corporate capitalism. “Built to break” is the whole idea, an essential part of the beautiful business proposition they have always been.
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