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auto maintenance January 13, 2018

The Mystery Box

The average age of a vehicle in the United States is about 11 years old. That means the average vehicle is a 2005 model year. But with 14 to 17 million new cars hitting the streets every year, a substantial number of vehicles have to be considerably older. 15 to 20 years is not that unusual. Now the most common parts (brakes, suspension, exhaust, engine, and accessories) are universally available from multiple sources. Waiting more than a couple of hours for a part is rare. Sometimes a day or two for the truly unusual. But those are all mechanical parts (ball joints, brake pads, belts, hoses, etc.) that have predictable documentable failure rates. That means suppliers will invest in producing and stocking these parts knowing that there will be a return on their investment.

But since the 1990’s cars have become increasingly cluttered with “black boxes”: computers, modules, and solid state relays that control many critical functions on the vehicle. These types of components don’t have a predictable failure rate and are generally expected to last the manufacturer’s predicted life of the vehicle (7 years), and in most case don’t ever fail. Further complicating the issue is the fact that, whereas a ball joint or brake rotor is often universal across millions of cars over a long life cycle, the electronic components are typically year-specific and sub-model-specific. So a body control module which is a fairly common item is different depending on whether the car has automatic headlights, delay wipers, or a myriad of other options that vary from car to car within a specific model.

Parts manufacturers and suppliers have been reluctant to get into that part of the business because of high investment and low return. So where do these parts come from? When the manufacturer produces the car and orders the computers and modules (typically from an outside vendor) they calculate the number of defects and premature failures and order a few more on top – and that’s it. The producer shuts the line and moves on to “the next big thing.”

As you can imagine, this system doesn’t leave much margin for error. So when, at the eight year mark a large number of the engine control computers on, say, the Ford Explorer all fail, all the available stocks are stripped from the dealer parts rooms and company warehouses. And that only covers 25% of the failures. And there are no more.

Plus the ones that were on the shelf have the same defect as the original units and may rapidly fail. The junkyards are picked clean and the nonfunctional cars are piling up. In the day when manufacturers did their own manufacturing in their own plants it would just be a matter of re-opening a line. But in the world of outsourcing, a vendor must be found.

But unlike the first go-around where the manufacturer could squeeze the vendor so hard he was lucky to make 87 cents per unit, the vendor is holding all the cards and knows it. The manufacturer usually balks, throws fits and cries, but eventually breaks down and agrees to actually pay the vendor. But by the time this has happened continental drift and rust have taken their toll.

Does this mean it’s hopeless to keep a vehicle beyond five years? Thankfully not.

The free market is a wondrous thing, and for every problem there is an answer. Problem with an instrument cluster that’s obsolete? There are companies that specialize in repairing instrument clusters. Problem with a computer? There are companies that specialize in opening the “black boxes” and fixing them. Often there are just bad solder joints. Sometimes a specific transistor or capacitor has failed and can be replaced.

The key is knowing which vendors are reliable, and that is our business.

Last week we repaired a 20-year-old Jeep to pass safety inspection, which it had failed due to an airbag problem. The diligent inspector noticed the airbag light had failed to “proof” (come on when the key is turned on but prior to starting the engine). The technician found the air bag light had been disabled by the prior owner. Once he restored the light it stayed on all the time, indicating an airbag circuit failure.

When he scanned the computer, about 10 fault messages jumped out, followed by “tilt.” The computer itself was completely shot. No parts from Jeep – all discontinued. But we located a good airbag computer, and once it was installed we got the rest of the story. The vehicle had been in an accident and suffered a full airbag deployment, which somebody “corrected” by cutting the blown airbags out and carefully gluing the covers back on, and for good measure cut the wires.

But once again, with no help from Jeep, we fully restored the airbags to operating condition, ready for anything. Sometimes these kinds of repairs take a little longer than we would like, but we’ve been around long enough and have enough connections to see the repair through. At Wiygul Automotive Clinic we do whatever it takes to restore your peace of mind.

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