Why modern cars are becoming “disposables”

Over the past few decades, I’ve noticed that it’s more and more expensive, and less and less practical, to fix any appliance or electronic item that breaks.  For a start, labor costs per hour are prohibitive;  then there’s the almost complete absence of critical spare parts, particularly electronic ones.  In the old days, a soldering iron and a couple of transistors, or a replacement plug-in card, could fix most things.  Today?  Fuggetabahtit!  The average personal computer used to consist of a fairly simple motherboard, with all peripherals and add-on components on separate, plug-in cards.  Nowadays, a motherboard contains everything, and has little or no room to plug in any cards at all.  If an essential part of that motherboard fails (e.g. the video interface), you have no choice but to replace the whole thing – and in most cases, the manufacturers won’t sell you a replacement motherboard.  No, they want you to buy a whole new computer!

Increasingly, the same applies to motor vehicles.  I’d been thinking about it in general terms, but an excellent article today by Eric Peters sheds light on the subject.

Insurance costs are skyrocketing because cars have become too complex, fragile and more disposable.

While they don’t need the regular tuning-up and other minor adjustments cars once needed, when they do need work, it is often extremely expensive – because of the complexity of the components and the specialized diagnostic equipment and highly-trained (and highly expensive) technicians needed to service them competently.

They are also easily damaged. Front and rear clips are made of plastic; hoods and fenders of extremely thin gauge metal (often, aluminum) in order to shave weight and increase mileage (to comply with government MPG fatwas) with the result being that what used to be minor fender-benders are now major accidents, in terms of repair costs – and these costs are necessarily being reflected in insurance costs. While the insurance mafia is despicable – any business that uses the government to force people to buy its services is despicable – one cannot blame them for adjusting premium costs to reflect repair costs.

Also, throw-away costs.

Cars now have so many air bags – the average new car has at least six – that the chances of the car being declared a total loss (economically unrepairable) in the event of a relatively minor – and otherwise repairable – accident are high. It can cost several thousand dollars to replace just two air bags – and all the related interior parts destroyed when the air bags go off. This is before one adds up the cost to repair damaged body panels. Most insurance companies will write-off a car as a total loss if the estimated cost to fix it exceeds 50 percent of its retail value.

Getting to 50 percent isn’t hard when a car is say four or five years old, worth 60 percent what you paid for it – and the wreck you just had will take $10,000 to repair (a third of that cost being the cost to replace the air bags that went off).

A car that cost $35,000 when it was new – the average purchase price of a 2018 model car – is effectively worthless after just a few years or a fairly minor accident. It is a lot of money to just throw away.

There’s more at the link, focusing particularly on why vehicle ownership is set to decrease drastically, simply because motorists can no longer afford to buy their own transport.  Increasingly, “rental as you need it” is going to be the only affordable option.  Highly recommended reading.

You might think that driving an older, more “repairable” vehicle will allow you to avoid these problems.  Not so much . . .  Many manufacturers are no longer producing OEM spare parts.  You have to rely on cheap Far Eastern knockoff components, where the quality is at best questionable, at worst abysmal.  Even there, only the more popular parts are being produced in economical quantities.  Try to find something hard-to-get, and you’ll pay through the nose.  Furthermore, many parts are now only available as complete sub-assemblies.  For example, on my wife’s car, a front headlight must now be bought as a complete assembly, even though only one bracket is defective.  You simply can’t buy the bracket on its own – at least, not from the manufacturer.  Additive manufacturing (so-called “3D printing“) is supposed to help alleviate this problem, but I haven’t yet seen any reports of it making a significant difference.

Therefore, your old beater car will remain a good, low-cost solution, unless and until you can’t get the parts you need to keep it on the road.  We might end up like Cuba, where thousands of pre-revolution cars had to be kept going for decades with ingenuity, handmade parts and other workarounds, because there were no replacement vehicles available.

There’s also the growing issue of self-driving cars and automated vehicle safety systems.  As we’ve observed in these pages before, once cities have installed the necessary roadside hardware to more efficiently and effectively control vehicles fitted with such systems, they’re going to want all vehicles without them to be removed from the roads.  It makes sense from the point of view of control, after all – no mavericks wanted!  They’ll protest that they aren’t confiscating our private vehicles;  we merely have to bring them into compliance with “modern road safety standards” if we want to drive them on their roads.  Since it’ll be technically impossible to bring them into compliance . . . well, that’s our problem, isn’t it?

I have a nasty feeling that the next vehicle Miss D. and I buy will have to last us for a long time, because its replacement will be either unaffordable, or so automated that we won’t be allowed to drive it ourselves.  We’ll have to allow a computer to operate it, and carry us hither and yon – if, and only if, it condescends to agree with what we want.

Neither prospect pleases.



  1. In the actual for real old days, you could learn to fix most problems yourself. Change the oil, perform a complete tune up, rebuild a carburetor or replace a belt or hose – it was all pretty easy, and if you couldn't every teenage boy knew someone who could and would be willing to help. Spare parts could be had at Spud's Junk Yard (Spud's Salvage). I liked it at Spud's. He used to keep a nice cat in his office.

    Now? No way.

    The only real improvement on a 2018 automobile is the ablative effect of the body, which equates to armor. The car protects the passengers by crumpling and absorbing impact. I can buy a new car, but a new wife and kids? Not so much.

    While the internal combustion engine is much more efficient than it used to be, it can be better still. Until auto manufacturers are pressured into doing so, you can forget about any improvements in that direction.

    As for safety concerns, if the government and auto manufacturers were really concerned about safety, they'd build the family sedan with the safety features of a race car. Think: My buddy Lash wipes out at 150 mph and walks away with nary a mark on him – but the Mustang he used to have was heavily modified to conform to track safety rules.

    As for renting a wreck for daily activities, I don't think I'll ever see it in my lifetime. But maybe so, depending on A.I. and self-driving autonomous cars.

  2. My wife keeps suggesting I replace my old beater – a 2005 JGC with 194,000 miles on it. Since I haul a lot of firewood and other crap in her the suspension was shot so I spent some money replacing all that. A whole lot less than a down payment on a new car though and continued zero monthly payments. I'll drive it until it won't go anymore and then figure it out from there.

    At least a portion of the issue with computers is that it doesn't pay to stock many of the electronics beyond 3 years or so. CPU, GPU, memory, secondary storage… all that stuff is obsolete in no time at all. Back in the day – not that long ago actually – you could do some long term purchases and continuing engineering and keep computer systems on line for 7, even 10 years. Some of that was contractually necessary for, for example, telco/networking systems buried in COs. Can't do that anymore, not profitably anyway.

    The technology of autos doesn't change quite as radically or quickly. The frills and such, maybe, but not drivetrain and brakes and such. I expect another 5 or 8 years at least from the JGC barring a considerable wreck.

    A couple-three years ago I was traveling home on the tail end of a pretty solid snowstorm. I was coming up on an interchange where I needed to switch from one freeway to another and noted it looked like there was a bit of plow pile across the entry to the interchange. The guy infant of me confirmed it by slowing way down and thumping over it. I took his cue and did the same while watching if the dumbass kid driving the pointy snouted thing behind me would follow suit. No such luck. No sooner did I get onto the plow pile then numbnuts slammed into my butt. Fortunately JGC's a bit high in the tail, and that was enhanced by the plow pile so sh*ferbrains got his snout up under my tail. I just lifted a bit and lunged a bit forward. He, on the other hand, didn't have much radiator left and wasn't driving anywhere for a while.

    We both got out of our cars and were both clearly uninjured. Dumbass sure was embarrassed though and kept apologizing.

    "I guess we have to call the police, heh," said the yute.

    I couldn't find anything more than a scratch in the plastic cover of my bumper. "I don't have time for that, kid, I'm running late for a brunch I gotta get to. Nothing wrong with my car. Good luck and have a nice life." Climbed back in and drove away with the kid thanking me. What a dumbass.

  3. Went to purchase a vehicle new, but they wanted $29,000. I found the same vehicle used with under 3500 miles on it for $19,000. Seems it had an obscure problem and the manufacturer allowed the original purchaser to trade it in on a different vehicle. Therefore it did not show up in the Lemon Law databases. I buy it and the manufacturer had to figure out the obscure problem. It took two months in the service shop, and 47.5 hours of a mechanic's time to get the vehicle working. In the end after replacing the computer and most of the sensors, the problem was a defect in the wiring in a very difficult to replace location. The only good thing was all the repair work was covered under the warranty.

  4. I'm on my last truck now. When it finally dies or costs to much, I'll use mu UTV to get around my small rural northern Michigan town and use the County bus system for my doctor.

    The ever increasing insurance, the cost of plates going up, high gas prices and taxes, crappy expensive tries that don't last, and a need to constantly repair my trucks, has become just to much to bare anymore.

  5. I'm still driving a 2001 Jetta that I got out of the divorce. It was her car but I was there when she bought it. My dad is still driving a 1992 a 26 year old Honda Prelude. I like my car he likes his and they work great.
    I used to drive a vw bus.It was a 76 IIRC but I know it was year before they came with hydraulic lifters so every six months or so I had to run the rack with my feeler gauge but it was a very simple engine that I could work on. I could do anything to it and did and it carried me a hundred times between San Diego and San Francisco.

    On my Jetta, I open the hood and it's not like the highschool days when we rebuilt motors and stuff. I don't even know the names of the stuff under the hood.

  6. I continue to think that the 'automated car' and rent-per-use thing may be very popular in densely populated areas, but not so much when one is 30+ miles out.

    Millennials are all hot and bothered about self-drivers; unfortunately for them, they don't have the money to buy them. The real money remains with the Boomers and the following generation and they are buying large crossovers and pickups–not cars (!)

  7. On a related subject, I recently presented my 12yr old car for it's annual (UK .gov mandatory) inspection. It initially failed on two items (one track rod end needed replacing, and one low-beam headlight was not lighting when switched on) – minor issues which even I could have done myself with a few hours spanner time….. oh innocent me………
    The track rod end was not a problem.
    The low beam (dipped) light on the other hand….. The lamp lit up just fine when presented with 12V DC when on a simple test rig…. OK lets look at the wiring…… oh crap, it's microwired via the vehicle management computer, not a standard gauge 12V wire to be seen anywhere……….
    OK, panic stations, 24 hours left on the current annual certificate and no main dealer computer to hand for several days. Old fashioned last ditch solution, unplug & spray switch cleaner then WD40 on everything that's possibly related to the wiring for the lights, from the lamp to the steering column switch.
    Saint Simeon & Saint Jude were apparently feeling some good will towards a lapsed Welsh Baptist as the lamp worked again on the switch (just as it had done 30 minutes before the first inspection…) and the car then passed it's annual inspection…..

    So, in this case, a dirty connector could have a reduced a £2500 vehicle to scrap value, bearing in mind that some of these multi connector under the bonnet (hood) look more like what's in my PC that what I am used to on an engine…..

  8. A word of advice from a retired car salesman. If you are financing, always, always, buy GAP insurance. If the insurance company will only settle for a figure lower than you owe, you have a big problem. GAP insurance pays the difference. You don't need to get it from the dealership (which will break the finance guy/gal's heart), but do get it).

  9. Really looking HARD for a pre 1970 truck. THAT I can work on, and rebuild myself if I have to, and yes, there ARE parts… sigh

  10. Agree with your comments. IMy 2010 F150 farm truck is very low milage (under 40,000) – this summer I lost the driveshaft centre bearing. The bearing itself is a standard size but Ford assembles it into a complete assembly – over $700 (canadian). The garage said its become a common failure point, and there is no way to grease it or repair it, without complete replacement. What a rip off.

    Complained to a guy at work – he had a worse example. His wife's Toyota 4Runner has a power tailgate – it started acting up. Dealer had to replace the whole thing – over $2000 in costs. For a flakey motor..

  11. The self-driving car idiocy will last right up until the morning that a hitherto undetected bug in the programming causes several thousand of the same make and model to suddenly turn right in the middle of the morning commute, for no readily apparent reason. The death toll of that particular screwup will include any popularity self-driving cars ever had.

    To err is human. To replicate that error several thousand times a second requires a computer.

  12. Paris has already started the vehicle control business. If you want to drive your vehicle in Paris, you must have a "Crit'air" sticker certifying that your vehicle meets emission standards. I suspect it is forcing many people and companies to trade in their older vehicle.

    And as far as "rent it when you need it", they have stations around the city with electric cars. You sign up for the service and then can drive off in one of them and pay by the hour.

  13. The wife and I discussed this last week. We had a brake problem with our 2007 Equinox, which we love. Our mechanic replaced the leaking master cylinder, then found there were further problems. We debated buying a 2014 or 2015 model as the last vehicle we ever intended to own. We rarely drive over 6,000 miles a year, so a 70,000 mile vehicle would take us into our eighties. In the end the master cylinder and a new brake booster solved the problem. The bill for that was much easier to take than $500 payments for 4 years.

  14. As for safety concerns, if the government and auto manufacturers were really concerned about safety, they'd build the family sedan with the safety features of a race car. Think: My buddy Lash wipes out at 150 mph and walks away with nary a mark on him – but the Mustang he used to have was heavily modified to conform to track safety rules.

    Not being rude here, Mad Jack, just real world:
    1. Nobody, nobody, has any business going fast enough on public roads to need that level of crash protection.

    2. Nobody will put up with climbing over steel tubes to enter and exit a street car. In fact, most people couldn't do it. 🙂 The cross-bracing in a NASCAR style frame will make a car impossible to use.

    3. If anyone thinks new cars are expensive now, wait until you get the safest one ever designed built in carbon fiber. Can you say unaffordable?

    The problem of people injured in cars is always the same: drivers. Drunk drivers, drivers not paying attention, drivers driving too fast for conditions. Unless you are driving a Smart Car, of course.

  15. It's true. I'm 72. When I was a kid, it was nothing to replace any part of any car in your driveway, no matter what the problem was. Then along came Federal regulations. You can't even replace the keys in your car today without going to the dealership.

  16. The increase in airbags in a vehicle is in response to the gas mileage demands of the Feds. Crash resistance of the structure decreases as it gets lighter to accommodate this.

    Ford stopped production/sale of the Ranger pickup here in the US, since they couldn't make it meet the conflicting requirements and still meet the public's demand for features. Still built for the rest of the world, though. Call this "unintended consequences", a government mantra of the USA, it seems.

    Prior to computer aided design (CAD), engineers added a fudge factor for strength in auto parts that had any connection to safety. In the demand for fuel mileage, and associated drive for cost reduction, this fudge factor disappeared. About 2000, I started to see parts breakage of suspension parts in normal street use. Even wheels break, now.

  17. Get an older American made car or truck manufactured prior to 1980. Parts are still made for them and they even make brand spanking new sheet metal. You lose out on airbags and some computer designed crush protection. The tradeoff is no computers and no smogging in most civilized states. They're simple to work on and will last forever with some maintenance and attention to initial rustproofing on the rebuild.

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