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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Get ready for huge repair bills

22 Feb 2024

As someone who spent most of the late 1960s and early 1970s working on the only old cars I could afford, I recognise the value of affordable repairs.

Back in the day, cars shared a lot of parts and those parts were readily available, many of them from independent third-party sources at relatively low cost.

Need a set of points? No worries. New spark plugs? Piece of cake.

Even a generator or starter-motor were the sort of things you could buy from any number of car-parts manufacturers or, if that failed, you could grab a second hand unit for a song from the local wrecker's yard.

Well those days are well and truly coming to an end I'm afraid.

Modern vehicles are filled with bespoke parts that are only available from the manufacturer or their dealers and this means you pay the price they ask or you go without.

The shift to EVs will make this situation even worse, by an order of magnitude at least.

There are no "generic" parts in an EV.

No spark plugs, no 12V headlight bulbs, no little toggle switches on the dashboard.

Modern cars, particularly EVs, are a glittering array of very custom designed and manufactured technologies. To see what I mean, try to get a new dashboard for your Tesla or BYD from Repco and see how you get on.

To make matters even worse, the level of integration has reached an all-time high.

Whereas cars used to have separate instrumentation and controls for things such as speedo, tachometer, water temperature, heater controls, radio volume, etc -- these days such functions and features are all integrated into a single (or multiple) LCD touchscreen.

If the three-position heater switch in your old Holden packed a wobbly and stopped working on "high", all you had to do was rip down to Repco, grab a third-party replacement and throw it in. No drama and very little expense.

In a modern car, any small failure of any of these little subsystems could result in a huge repair bill because of the high levels of integration. When something small fails you could well end up having to replace a major part of the vehicle's control systems because of the high levels of interdependencies involved.

And those highly integrated touch-screens and control units will not be cheap.

That three-position mechanical switch from Repco for the old Holden might have cost $5 or so but getting a new touchscreen or control module for your "just out of warranty" EV could be well into four figures, or higher.

Even worse, the pace at which these systems are changing has reached an all-time high so manufacturers/dealers may not even have these spares available for older models, even if you're prepared to pay the price they ask. The cost of maintaining an inventory of spares going back beyond a few short years would be prohibitive in such a highly competitive market.

What about the second-hand option though? Surely, once a vehicle gets old enough that these things start failing, there'll be parts available from your local wrecker's yard... right?

Well possibly but even if you can track one down, you'll still be likely facing a huge bill.

It's not only that the part itself will still be spendy but you can bet your bottom (and possibly last) dollar that it will be "keyed" to the rest of the vehicle. By this I mean that it will have a unique identifier as part of the datastream, with that identifier being different for every vehicle. You won't be able to just fit a second-hand screen or controller and drive away -- oh no!

With an eye on profits, you can guarantee that before any second-hand part can be "activated" in another vehicle you'll have to take a trip to the local franchised dealer who will be the only game in town for resetting the unique identifier to match the rest of your car. As we know, monopolies allow ridiculous prices to be charged... and so it will be with this service; that's if they offer the service at all. Could be that dealers will simply say "sorry, we don't support the use of second-hand parts, you'll have to buy a brand new replacement from us for $xxxxxx".

This, and other factors, could see the depreciation rate associated with new cars skyrocket in the next few years. Why spend money on an out of warranty vehicle that could, at any moment, require many thousands of dollars worth of repairs if even the smallest bit of its electrical or electronic subsystems fail?

Forget about aging batteries being the biggest risk in a second-hand purchase, it'll be the chance that the fancy hi-tech electronic dashboard or some other part of the integrated computer-based vehicle control system might spit the dummy, that is the real concern. At least a tired battery will still allow the vehicle to be used for urban/suburban travel but if your dashboard doesn't light up or your heater is forever stuck on "BBQ mode" -- you're totally stuffed.

I wonder how long before some bright-spark manufacturer realises that creating open-source subsystems for their vehicles might result in massively increased resale value and that such high resale could be a major benefit in promoting new car sales?

"Buy our OpenSourced XYZ Turbospark model and you'll not only be assured of low cost spares and repairs but you'll also enjoy the highest resale value of any car on the market"

That'd be one hell of a selling feature, at least for me.

Ah well, one can but dream I guess.

Carpe Diem folks!

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