Automotive Nightmares

1. It’s Nightmare Storytime!

Even if you do not own a car, you can’t escape the nightmares – your car-owning friends certainly shared their stories of car repairs, in exchange for much needed comfort. Now, every failure of a car is either mechanical or electrical related. The mechanical ones are as old as horseless carriages … even carriages with horses had them, in addition to biological failures. But electrical and especially electronic failures, that’s a novelty. And that is what automotive nightmares are made of.

Do your brake issues cause you nightmares? Here’s an easy fix!
(source: user Boosted3232, via Reddit)

What follows is empirical anecdotal evidence. (Empirical? Because you can ask any car mechanic in high-income countries and will get anecdotes just like these, as many as you care to listen to.)

Keys

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Do your central locking system issues cause you nightmares? Here’s an easy fix.
(source: user Funky_Pickle, via Reddit)

Electronic car keys are our first nightmare. Made from a thin plate of ferrous metal in times past, they are now apparently made from a platinum alloy. Or how else are we supposed to explain that “A replacement for your spare electronic car key can cost between $250 to $750. However, if you have lost all your keys, you need to reset your car’s computerised system, then create and code an entirely new set of keys. This can cost around $2,000 to $5,000.” (source). To give an example, somebody was quoted 1200 EUR for a new key for their Mercedes car (source).

Lights

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Do your automotive light issues cause you nightmares? Here’s an easy fix!
(source: 20 Hilarious Car Repairs That Are Just Too Brilliant To Be Wrong!)

Somebody’s right fog lamp failed. Spare parts would be around 4.50 EUR even if the bulb, wire and fuse would all be broken at the same time. But we live in modern times. Now the spare was around 450 EUR (and 150 EUR for testing and repair) for a little black box (literally black) answering to the name of 3C8937049AC that was at fault (source, German). Didn’t car lamps work just fine with wires, bulbs and fuses in times past? What exactly does this black box with electronics (“ECU”) do, except breaking down?

Another person’s headlights failed. Since these were xenon lights, they were a bit, umh, complex. The lamps themselves plus their companion black boxes with electronics had to be replaced. The cost? 950 EUR (source).

Instruments, sensors, everything really

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Do your automotive instrument issues cause you nightmares? There’s an app for that!
(source: 40+ of the Most Hilarious DIY Car Repair Fails of All Time)

A month later, our troubled protagonist with headlights issues from above was hit again with car nightmares. His dash instruments were acting up and the whole car was not running properly anymore (source) … the engine had very little power output, was not taking accelerator input properly, and the brake was not working. (Turns out, the brake issue was “only” because the engine was silently dying while driving so that the engine-supported brake did not brake properly anymore (source) – umh, how comforting that the brake still worked but only appeared to not work.) Anyway, not drivable anymore, and the official repair shop could not find any issue (source) (in other words, they were overwhelmed by this problem). Anyway, 160 forum messages later they had figured out this issue together (source). And the culprit was: a defective crankshaft position sensor. These defects do not show up in the self-diagnosis system of the vehicle electronics as the vehicle has no way to check the plausibility of the sensor values, but apparently their malfunction is the only sensor malfunction that can cause the engine switch off (source). Spare part cost for the sensor was just 40 EUR (source). The cost of figuring out the problem, if paid at commercial rates, had probably been 100 times that. Add to that the multiple parts that repair shops usually replace while looking for the issue (example, for the same symptoms) and it amounts to a total economic loss of the vehicle due to … a part that sells for 40 EUR here and is manufactured for maybe 5 EUR by our industrious Chinese friends. If that does not cause you nightmares, you’re living too long on this planet already! :laughing:

Reports of electronics failure can be so unexplainable that we should accept the “ghost in a machine” hypothesis as the most likely. Or how do you explain this?

A long time ago, for example, I had a Lada Samara. Its engine always went out at a certain traffic light on my way to work when the traffic light was green. The engine only started again as soon as the traffic light showed red again. So, it was bad luck when I had to stop at this traffic light of all places. There were always few funny horn companies from the following motorists. My car workshop told me I’m crazy when I described the issue. But when I let the workshop foreman come along for a demonstration, they stopped laughing. (source, translated to English)

Oh, and I have one more like that, my personal favourite. A friend’s brother whose VW Touran diesel car did not start anymore. None of several workshops could figure it out, so he asked my friend to just sell it as broken. My friend takes it to his place but does not want to give up on it so easily. But can’t figure it out either. So he just leans on the car and prays for it. From right then and there, it started reliably again. They still sold it shortly afterwards, because, who knows how long that treatment lasts.

Even battle tanks, the most indestructible of all vehicles, are easily taken out of action nowadays by pulling on a cable or other electrical component. When I was in the military, I found a damage report in our tank unit of Leopard 2A5 main battle tanks. Somebody had stepped on something wrong upon leaving the tank through the turret hatch, and that broke one of the tank’s electronics boards. Repair costs were roughly 10,000 EUR in today’s money (I don’t remember exactly).

2. The Appropriate Car

Appropriate technology is about “technological choice and application that is small-scale, affordable […], decentralized, […] energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally autonomous […] The term appropriate technology is also used in developed nations to describe the use of technology and engineering that result in less negative impacts on the environment and society, i.e., technology should be both environmentally sustainable and socially appropriate.” (source; leaving out “labor-intensive” because that’s about job creation, not the use of technology).

Well, sweet! If that isn’t what we want from technology, I don’t know. Those modern, electronic-filled, automobile shaped nightmares from above are however quite far off the mark. With all their absurdly cushioning comfort, they even fail in providing us with valuable human experience, as we shall see in a later piece. In other words, there is a good amount (but not complete) overlap between less wasteful car electronics and what car users need and sometimes demand.

But just how became cars such a nightmare? That’s a good question (and you’re welcome to join the discussion below). Here’s a very limited, mechanistic perspective: since new cars still last three years before the maintenance and repair nightmares begin, this fragile technology does not cause nightmares to the immediate, paying customers: those purchasing or leasing new cars, and switching them for another new one after one to a few years. Cars are made as impressive high-tech packages that last these first few years, often sold or rather leased as a mobile booster for social status, and directly fund automakers in that role. After that, automakers do not care, beyond making a mint of money from excessively priced spare parts and repairs. Second-hand owners care, though. The environment cares. Future people care about the wasteful practices of today.

That brings us to another good question: what can be done. I’ll start with a few ideas what can be done with technology alone, and you’re very welcome to expand on that and also to add policy, sociological, business and metaphysical perspectives in the discussion below:

  1. Reduce. The first commandment in “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. What is not there cannot break. All the electronics in optional extras are not necessary, otherwise these would not be called “options”. Similarly, many separate electronic devices can be merged into a universal one, as demonstrated by smartphones and their apps, and as also demonstrated by the “single large screen” user interface of Tesla’s cars.

  2. Learning from repairs. There are already a few companies that offer to repair automotive electronic units, for 15-30% of an original new spare part. When doing the repairs is when you learn how your products break. It’s also much more environmentally friendly than just replacing one piece of electronic junk with another, which is how cars create issues of electronic waste during their lifetime. So, manufacturers should be doing the repairs themselves, and somehow have the incentives to improve their products from what they learn. A lifelong “right to have it repaired” might help: as a customer, you’d still have to figure out which part is broken, but then getting it repaired would be free of charge.

  3. Constant evolution, not fast fashion. New passenger cars are positioned as lifestyle products that follow fashion trends paced in model years and distinguished by design and luxury features. Such an environment eliminates the benefits of learning from previous failures: every switch to a new model translates to hundreds of changes, so that learnings can not be applied unmodified. And of course, all these changes introduce more weaknesses as well. Beyond a certain rate of change, learnings from previous failures are worth very little. What we need is car models that are built for decades in a kind of slow evolution. The emergence of luxury and vanity features indicates a certain maturity in the development of a product’s core functionality. Of course, with the switch to electric cars we will have another few years of fast advancing technology, but after that, it’s the right time for a constant evolution towards reliable and appropriate technology.

  4. Redundancy. Automakers sometimes use a single level of redundancy, as employed or at least proposed by Tesla for data cable wiring (source) and used by Tesla for their self-driving control computers (source). However, that is for operational safety: the vehicle will not fail immediately, and the redundant system can be used until the failed part is repaired in the near future. But with more than one level of redundancy, it would actually be acceptable for a part to fail, without the car requiring a repair of this part in its lifetime. Note also how redundant sensors allow to detect a sensor fault by comparing their values – a good strategy to avoid cases like that of the faulty crankshaft sensor from above, which did not and could not show up in the self-diagnosis system as there was no way to cross-check its values.

  5. Expert systems for failure diagnoses. I quite like the idea of failure self-diagnosis, as already implemented in cars. But not the way it is implemented. The first issue: display the actual meaning of current error codes on a screen in the car’s main digital screen. That’s empowering the users; otherwise, we’re forced to empower ourselves by buying Chinese and Russian reverse-engineered diagnostic devices. The second issue: no self-diagnosis system will ever be perfect, even with redundancy, as failures are by nature unpredictable. Currently, “diagnosis” then happens by exchanging possibly defective parts, paid for by the car owner, until the actually defective one has been isolated. That is wasteful, and can be improved by an expert system in which everyone doing car repairs can enter their repair results in a structured way. It’s for providing repair advice like an Internet forum now, only better.

  6. Longevity requirements. One point that wades into policy realm. I don’t get how policy makers care about ever-stricter emission regulation for cars, but not about the wastage of critical raw materials and of energy by short lifetimes of cars and car parts, especially electronic ones. A car, including its electronics, that lasts five times as long has an 80% lower resource consumption of all raw materials even in the absence of recycling. And such a lifetime is not unrealistic, as demonstrated by commercial trucks. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk is on record for saying that “Model 3 drive unit and body is designed like a commercial truck for a million mile life.” (source). Even in case the average Tesla Model 3 cannot live up to that – this is the direction to go, and this is what policy makers must tell automakers so they will tell their engineers. The price for a new vehicle may rise, but the resale price will also be higher – so first-hand owners will not care, and second-hand owners will be thankful for a more reliable vehicle.

That’s enough of tech proposals, because surely better tech alone will not get us out of this nightmare. It rather seems to me that the whole value system of our current culture is at fault, enabling such a poor creation and experience as that of today’s cars. I leave you with a quote from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” for now (actually the most-sold philosophy book of all time). We can explore the implications on cars together.

“[J]ust stare at the machine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just live with it for a while. Watch it the way you watch a line when fishing and before long, as sure as you live, you’ll get a little nibble, a little fact asking in a timid, humble way if you’re interested in it. That’s the way the world keeps on happening. Be interested in it.”

Join us for a fun event on April 29 at 15h CET

We will explain hazards of ubiquitous car electronics, and discuss hacks and solutions we can use to improve things. Register now for free! https://www.eventbrite.com/e/295060924167

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Great piece, @matthias! There are so many things to say that I do not know where to start. :slight_smile:

I’ll start with this: vehicle longevity is certainly a super important factor in choosing your ride. I have been a motorcyclist for 25 years, and for 22 of those years I have ridden BMWs, which have a reputation for being indestructible. Back when I started, there was a rumor that “80% of all BMW bikes ever produced are still on the road”. That was probably a myth, but it was true that those machines were very reliable. Few people can “finish off” the engine of a BMW bike. Most motorcyclists ride only on weekends, fewer than 5,000 kms a year, and at that pace you could probably buy a BMW bike at 30 and ride it until you are 70. You, could, in fact, ride just the one good bike for your entire life.

Part of this longevity was the policy of keeping spare parts on the catalog for a long, long time. But, as electronics crept into the motorcycle world, I am not sure how they are going to keep doing that. Also, they now have to maintain the maintenance systems themselves: mechanics – even the very experienced ones – are now powerless without the (proprietary) software diagnostic tools, produced and maintained by the manufacturer. Will those tools still be maintained and backward-compatible? How long? Will mechanics in 2037 be able to look into the electronics of a 2005 bike?

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Ah yes, of course! Spare parts availability is a great additional point. A closely related point that I should have mentioned in the list of possible improvements at the end of the article is: standardization. There’s just no better enabler of technological efficiency (and thus also, resource efficiency and resource protection) than standardization. If the most needed spare parts are all standard parts, manufacturers do not even have to care about stocking them. Like, how a few weeks ago I was able to buy steering rod dust caps for my 43 y/o oldtimer truck by buying new ones made for agricultural tractors. Measures had been standardized and were still the same after all that time.

Sadly, technology and especially automotive technology is moving away from standardized parts. They are not even standardized in the same vehicle anymore, due to all the unnecessary variants that one can order. In the story of the fog light repair related above, there had been 12 different variants of the broken onboard electricity control unit (another black box with electronics …) for the same model of car (source). Certainly these will not all be available for long. Imagine the opposite extreme, were all cars sold in the EU would share the same electronic boxes, just differing in their software content, and that software would be open source to guarantee its usefulness decades into the future.

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But what about the brands that have built a reputation of reliability, like Volvo in cars and BMW in motorcycles? They should have more of an incentive to keep spare parts available, because the beasts with 300K kilometers on their engines (and counting) are part of the myth.

More nightmare stories! A few days ago I spoke to a client of mine, an elderly German man who has been driving many different cars for decades, including expensive ones. I asked for stories about nightmare defects and repairs, and got these ones:

A birth defect. The client’s new 2021 Suzuki Jimny had a “birth defect”: the right mirror sometimes would not automatically fold to the car when closing the door. Not that this is a critical function to start with, but when you have a new car you probably want it to work. The dealer says, bend it to the car manually, and then it will work again. It did, for about five times. So the client brought the car do the dealer and demands it gets fixed, and to get a rental car if needed to bridge the time. Situation is pending. Lots of time and money lost for something that nobody really needs. Five mechanical spare mirrors will still be cheaper than a single electronic one.

A suicidal jeep. The same Suzuki Jimny has an active lane guard system, or let’s say, suicidal tendencies. That system actively overrides your steering to keep you on the road. Now a certain left turn in a forest outside the client’s village always scares that lane guard system. As a result, the car wants to go off the road into the forest, and the client has to use some force on the steering wheel to keep it on the road. Now that lane guard system can be disabled manually after starting the car, but ever so often the client would forget it, drive through the same curve, and nearly veer off the road again. So the client asks the dealer’s workshop to disable this feature at engine start as a default, and they say: sorry, that’s impossible.

Washing a car key. The client’s wife once put a car key in the washing machine by accident, and afterwards it was broken. We joked that car keys were washable alright in old times. Well, the new electronic car key fob did cost the client ca. 200 EUR, and the workshop got another 150-200 EUR for “training” it to match the car.

How many Germans to change a lightbulb? The original lightbulb joke about Germans answered “One, we’re very efficient but not funny.” (source). But that’s a matter of the past. Case in question, the client was driving an unspecified car on the highway in Germany when one frontlight bulb stopped working. Client visits a highway fuel station that fortunately has a workshop, and agrees with the mechanic to wait in the restaurant until the bulb is fixed. After some time, the mechanic appears and says: “Sorry I can’t change that bulb, in this car model it needs a specialized tool. We have to call ADAC roadside assistance.” They got it done finally. But how many Germans was that?

  1. mechanic
  2. client waiting in the restaurant
  3. ADAC dispatch agent
  4. ADAC roadside assistance crew
  5. company manufacturing the special tool that ADAC had (let’s say that’s 20 Chinese)
  6. workers in a worldwide logistics system to bring in that special tool
  7. everyone who contributed to building and operating the mobile phone network that was used to call in the ADAC reinforcements

How many Germans is that? Maybe 20,000, and another 20,000 foreigners?

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omg this is wild.

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was reminded of that thread about cars in your feed - cant find it again @syntheticzero - you know the one?

OMG I was laughing out loud reading this @matthias not just because the examples you gave here and above are not only (to some extend) relatable but also because the difference between the EU and Georgia :smiley:

As you know I’ve lived most of my adult life in Georgia and so I have never been a car owner myself in the EU, tho I have been here for a good decade.

Especially now that we are living quite remote, a car is a necessity - there isn’t any public transportation, so your only other option would be to hitch hike down, waiting for a car to come along and take you down or up the mountain. We often take hitch hikers from down to the next village over, they only recently paved the road between our two villages.

Our road, a dead end road connecting to the main road, isn’t paved. The only two roads paved are the main roads, with one of them paid for by the local government and the other by the community. For some reason, instead of the more expensive four wheel drives that can handle this kind of environment better, most cars are 20 year old sedans, with Mercedes being a local fav.

Now, many cars on the road here are cars that have been written off in the EU or in the US. Funny side note: my father-in-law owns a car import company from the US. They buy - or private people and dealers through them - cars from the states with significant electronic and/or mechanical damages/issues, fix them up, and resell them regionally (incl to Armenia and Azerbaijan).

You’d think that would mean there’s a lot of knowledge and car parts. Well, yes and no. If you own a “popular” brand (Mercedes, BMW or Toyota) there is more knowledge and there are parts. Try finding a replacement part for a Volvo, Citroen or Mazda, good luck…

But no matter the brand, you yourself will still be stuck for a day or more looking for parts yourself asking around who may have x part for 200X car in unmarked garages off highways, with some mechanics taking you to another unmarked garage in a residential area locked with a large lock, car parts everywhere, but yes, going through the chaos that find that tiny little specific part eventually.

Now with all of these particularities combined, we (my partner and I) had to become creative and inventive as car owners. Here are some of my fav anecdotes:

  • Our second car (I wont even talk about the first I owned, a Mitsubishi Pajero, I will never get one of those again) was a 2003 Nissan XTerra that we had bought through my father-in-law’s company. There was one issue: the check engine light was almost always on. But they couldn’t find anything wrong. The solution: just ignore.
    Well, of course there was something wrong. Or many things.
    One day, our car had troubles starting. We had it checked, but they couldn’t find anything. Next time it happened we were up at our house. Towing would be incredibly expensive. So, we went online and tried figuring out if we could fix it. Turns out, with the specific make and model (and some other cars as well), hitting the starter with a hammer as you attempt to start will help. AND IT DID.

The third time it happened we were yet again at our house. This time, the hammer did not solve it. So we decided to take the starter out of the car ourselves, completely disassemble it, trying to find the issue (which we did) and reassemble it.

  • My father-in-law felt bad about the troubles we were having with the car and decided to give us the car of his father (as he wasn’t using it), a 2004 Nissan Xterra. Within a month of owning it, the transmission broke. It cost us $2000 to fix it as it’s such a specific job and you need specialized expensive Nissan-rated tools for it. But, in the states, or the EU it would’ve cost us over $10,000 likely. And it would’ve likely been written off.
  • Now a couple of years later we also started using my grandmother-in-law’s city car, a 2006 Hyundai with no luxuries accept for the AC. A manual car, not automatic as our Xterras had been. And boy, this car did great. Untill a couple of months ago. A weird sound started coming out of the engine when driving, especially with AC on. A temp solution was turning the car on and off, and the sound would be gone. We bickered about the issue. I said it was AC-related, my partner thought it was a loose bolt. Two days ago the engine died while my partner was driving away from the house. He and a neighbor figured out that it was indeed the AC’s compressor. They disconnected the belt: the sound is gone, the car drives smoothly, and is much more economical. We don’t have a working AC, but that’s ok!

As you can read from my experiences, I related a lot with what you wrote about issues and possible solutions. From reducing “luxuries”, to pushing for interchangeable car parts across brands and models, and learning from repairs (the reason I never want a Mitshubishi Pajero again is that the car constantly needed a specific fixing, I forgot what it was as it was over a decade ago, which was a known issue for that specific type of car…), to constant evolution - I’ll explain last part below.

Last winter/spring, our beloved 2004 Xterra died. Well, the engine did. The only option was to pay yet again $2000 to fix it/replace it. And we decided to sell the car to a mechanic instead, who was planning to use it for its parts.

So, we have been driving our tiny city car on unpaved mountain roads. It was doing extremely well, even on ice and in the snow, we had this winter. Until it started snowing three weeks ago and didn’t stop.

My father-in-law, a good man, offered to get us a new car that can handle the kind of environment we sometimes find ourselves in (this kind of snow we are seeing right now is a rarity, but with climate change, who knows…).

And this brings me to your point of constant evolution and not fast fashion because the model we are eyeing (a Toyota 4runner) has had the same engine model for over a decade, which is a rarity in car design. The reason: it’s a good reliable engine, why change something that is good? Most cars change engine design every couple of years.

Another reason we’re eyeing the model is due to the easiness to fix something. Many of the modern cars we see today have everything so cramped into the engine base that if you’d want to fix something you’d have to remove the engine by hauling it out completely (like with the newer Subarus). Most Toyotas make it easier for DIY at-home repairs.

We haven’t found “the one” yet, because as I mentioned earlier most cars here have been in accidents of some kind before being fixed up and you don’t want to accidentally lose a wheel breaking the chassis going over a bump - we check the VIN number of any car we’re interested in to see previous damages and fix-ups to see how crucial the damages were and how reliably it could have been fixed. There’s one car that will be fixed up that week that seems to be fitting our needs and wasn’t damaged that badly, so fingers crossed we’ll be able to get out of this snow soon ;).

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It’s really refreshing to read something as lucid as this instead of the seemingly ubiquitous “new is better, tech will save us” point of view that dominates most discussions about automobiles. I may love cars and racing, I feel like I got fuel running through my veins, but that doesn’t make me blind to the fact that automobiles are an extremely inefficient method of transport that has shaped our lives mostly for the worst. It’s not just repair costs or breakdown woes: our economies are based on oil and minerals, our cities are built around streets for cars, a significant part of our lifetimes is spent in traffic jams or working towards paying the next installment for that four-wheel luxury object we bought to keep up with the Joneses. That’s what I loved about this article, it realizes these connections and understands that a more genuine approach to car ownership is key to economical and environmental sustainability: it’s not what we buy, it’s how we relate to what we buy through our ownership.

Sadly, from my experience in automotive journalism, I think this perspective is rarely considered. It’s all about what’s new, what can be sold to the customer regardless of how soon it’ll become obsolete or how genuinely useless it is. Maybe I’m a bit of a luddite, to me a car only needs four tires, a seat, a radio, and a decent power-to-weight ratio; but why we cannot have a middle ground between a barebones racecar and a mansion on wheels with 500 kilograms of soon-to-be-outdated wiring and semiconductors? Profit? Consumerism? Are we really getting the cars we want and need or are we buying what the auto industry has made us believe we want and need? And on the topic of power-to-weight ratios, if we care so much about engineering efficiency and environmental sustainability, why do we still ignore this critical metric that has defined some of history’s most beloved cars?

There’s also the topic of safety: everyone wants a safe car, but people rarely care about being safe drivers. I get the feeling it’s because they don’t really care about driving that much, to most people driving is just another menial task like washing the dishes or buying groceries. And I guess that’s the crux of the matter: that flawed value system of our current culture which you mention. I could go on and on and on, and my normal non-gearhead friends know full well I can, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about electric cars, self-driving technologies or infotainment systems: if we keep experiencing cars the way most people are doing right now we’ll be living a nightmare in which we’ll be scratching our heads trying to figure out how to repair a sealed AI self-driving unit while the world crashes and burns around us.

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