June 10

Refurbishing autonomy: how to stay in control as automotive tech advances


There’s a very real backlash emerging against the seemingly inexorable advance in vehicle technology. It is driven by many factors; lack of trust, privacy and control being the main concerns. Also, maybe we are simply not evolving as fast as the technology is being introduced. The never-ending introduction of shiny new features, usually wireless apps and computer chips, is exciting, adds convenience and safety in certain cases, but it is also fuelling discontent among many who feel that although they may own their vehicle, they no longer understand it or have full control over their ownership of it. 

There’s a very real backlash emerging against the seemingly inexorable advance in vehicle technology. For ​​more, check out this post

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These fears are real and justified. How can motorists fully trust the technology when it is being developed and introduced so fast that occasional high profile mistakes and accidents are being paraded before them in the media? Just because these problems are occasional, it doesn’t mean they cannot happen to them.

Burning questions about electric vehicles

When, on a rare occasion, a battery sets an electric car on fire, due to hot spots that are not properly cooled and that melt, causing electrical shorts, all the fire department can do is try to cool it down by spraying water over it. Even if it goes out, it can spontaneously light up again - on the tow truck or at the repair shop. Apparently, there is no way to dismantle or disable these batteries, without causing them to reignite, other than immersing them in a tank of salt water until they eventually corrode and parts dissolve. And, of course, the car is a total write off from the fire.

That may sound like a particularly dramatic case, but even at a more basic level on any type of car, there are potential problems with this emerging technology that have not been solved yet.

What do you trust: software or mechanical parts?

Today’s vehicles use computer modules and sensors to make operational decisions that mechanical cables and carburetors made in the past.  Additionally, all the systems in the modern vehicle are networked together for safety and operational improvements. This technology makes well over one hundred decisions a second and has dramatically improved fuel efficiency, performance, ride quality, cabin comfort, connectivity and more. The computers, programming and sensors are well tested and proven, but once the vehicle leaves the showroom, real life situations kick in. Digitized information is now subject to weather, road conditions and vibration. The low voltage communication network may not transmit accurately, due to degradation of wiring and connections. Corroded terminals, water infiltrating wiring harnesses and connectors, vibration, heat and even rats chewing wiring often distort the information enough to cause the decisions made by the multitude of computers to be inappropriate. As a result, while the mechanical parts may be accurate, reliable and slow, the high-speed digital management can be compromised. Modern vehicles are so complex, and have to measure up to such high operational standards, that some manufacturers have had to buy back new vehicles due to insurmountable glitches in the vehicle’s operational software networks.  

​The computers, programming and sensors in your car are well tested and proven, but once ​on the road, ​the ​communication network may not ​work accurately​.

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They know more than you think

And then there is Big Brother. You know that if you have a recently manufactured car (which has been nicknamed, a smartphone on wheels), the chances are that he is watching you. The vehicle manufacturer knows your driving habits, where you go, and with all that big data, has begun to plan your future for you.  That doesn’t sit comfortably with many. And there is a very real concern that the software in these vehicles could be hacked. There have been alarming revelations that the control of some cars can actually being taken over remotely while they are being driven.

Should Government trust the industry or regulate it?

The Government is taking steps to ensure the public is protected, but it is naturally lagging way behind a highly competitive automotive industry that competes for the driving public’s attention with all the bells and whistles new technology promises. In May 2019, the Hon. Navdeep Bains, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, released a Digital Charter for Canada, designed to ‘build a foundation of trust in the digital age’, and a white paper on the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) designed to ‘strengthen privacy in the digital age’. The question is, are these measures strong enough to protect the public’s personal privacy and safety in the emerging evolution of the autonomous driving car? Or is the fascination with the technology going to override a well-planned, safe integration of technology into our daily driving lives?  The ‘glitter ball’ appeal of the latest and greatest digital features could easily seduce us into casting caution aside.

​​Are ​government measures strong enough to protect the public’s personal privacy and safety in the emerging evolution of the autonomous driving car?

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A dignity check for vehicle owners

We heard a moving story about an old man who had his driver’s license taken away from him. He was 89 at the time, was in good health and had driven faultlessly for most of his life. Imagine the loss of dignity, autonomy and control he felt when that happened to him. Imagine its impact on his self-sufficiency and independence. Imagine the anger he must have felt to have all these things taken away from him. In a sense, these are feelings that are being felt by a wide spectrum of vehicle owners in relation to the technology being introduced in vehicles. There was a time when people understood how their car worked and could fix them themselves. There was a time when driving a vehicle was a ‘rite of passage’. There was a time when an owner felt free to choose who should look after their vehicle and they could understand the repairs and costs involved in keeping that vehicle.

Many drivers buy a vehicle with its bright shiny multitude of features and have no idea what it is likely to cost them should something break—especially something that is not covered by a warranty, the terms of which they probably didn’t fully absorb at the time of purchase. For instance, a headlight bulb used to cost about $20. Modern headlight clusters are sealed units, in some cases incorporating computer chips and little plastic gears attached to motors so the lights automatically follow the road as the car is driven. These features seem pretty awesome when new, but when the plastic gears break from all those bumpy roads, and the light beam jiggles in a very annoying way, leading to the discovery of a $2,000 price tag to remedy the situation, suddenly it’s not a happy driving experience any more.

Enter the New Classics

Many motorists are asking how they can maintain, simplicity, privacy, personal dignity, freedom to choose and a sense of control over their vehicle ownership, now and into the future. Being a part of the ‘tech backlash’ is attractive to many. Many simply want a reliable, fuel efficient, simple vehicle that they have full control over with the freedom of being off the grid. How do they go about that? The answer is easier - and cheaper - than you may think. They drive what we refer to as ‘a new classic’.

A new classic is typically, the kind of car that you really don’t notice much. The quintessential new classic is something like the Toyota Corolla. Plain, reliable, unremarkable. But, if you get the right new classic, you can retain your personal space and freedom, save loads of money and the stress that comes with new technology.

The 10-year sweet spot: 1990 - 2000

If you look at the way vehicles developed up until 1990, through to 2000 and beyond, you can see that there is an opportunity to have the car you want. If you want autonomy, independence, pride in ownership, reliability, simplicity and privacy, choose a vehicle in this window.

​If you want autonomy, independence, pride in ownership, reliability, simplicity and privacy, ​get a vehicle ​made 1990 - 2000.

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It was around 1980 that ‘fix the car yourself ’ began to decline. The widespread use of new technologies like electronic ignition and the beginnings of fuel injection raised the skill level high enough that the average person would not try to fix their own vehicles. It became a requirement to have a good relationship with a mechanic at a shop. It was also around that time that manufacturers were beginning to respond to criticism of the planned obsolescence policies they had been implementing. Even though the vehicles were built much better, the amount of costly planned obsolescence failures, after a five year period, became enough to encourage the purchase of a new one. Taking care of the vehicle better, in the first place, would have been a lower cost option when capital investment is taken into account.

Better fuel efficiency and reliability

Reliability and fuel-efficiency also increased with the introduction of solid state electronic ignition and then fuel injection. Before, spark plug ignition was mechanical, with points and a condenser that wore out regularly. It also meant that the carburetor needed periodic adjustment to compensate for that wear. If it got too bad, the car would not even start. For most people, reliability equals ‘it starts and moves’. That’s it really. Even with a horse and carriage, the mindset was the same. Solid-state electronic ignition’s ability to adjust the spark, also made the car more fuel efficient, created lower emissions and less stress on the ignition system. Ignition coils used to fail almost annually and now they last a very long time. By the early 2000s consistency of the fuel ratios were so good that ignition coils rarely had to be replaced.

As fuel injection was introduced, there were other benefits that came to the fore. Together with electronic ignition it resulted in better starting, with engines able to use full power from a cold start and spark plugs lasting way longer than before. Feedback carburetors with computers that ‘sniffed’ the exhaust and adjusted the fuel mixture added to cars becoming fuel-efficient and reliable like never before.

The end of the golden era

It was around 1998 that telematics and ODB2 came into play. ODB2 stands for On-Board Diagnostics, second generation. Telematics is the way that cars communicate with the manufacturer as to the state of the vehicle. Features like Onstar, the first of these systems, was originally introduced into some Cadillac models in 1997, and has been continually refined and developed since then, with other manufacturers building their own versions. While many of the features of telematics can be seen as tremendously advantageous, as with many tech advances, the full impact of the human element wasn’t sufficiently taken into account. Now that we have been living with its development for so long, people are getting concerned with the invasiveness of two-way data communication, and their own diminished control over their own possessions and private lives.

The good news

‘New classics’ are a dime a dozen and, generally, parts are still easily accessible for them. And they are cheap. Refurbishing a new classic to near-new condition is a lot cheaper than buying an equivalent new car. Once it is done, the car is most likely good for at least another 200,000km of fuel-efficient, reliable motoring that no-one is monitoring from afar. It’s also a lot more environmentally-friendly and efficient in terms of global natural resources consumed.

The best and the worst

At The Garage in Burnaby, we have been and continue to work on new classics every day. It’s always a pleasure for us to find ways to extend the life of a good vehicle. As a guide to what is a good purchase, we’ve dug into our records and found which cars were the best in terms of their maintenance costs, reliability and longevity. While this is not a definitive list, and of course any car may not have been properly maintained with its previous owners, it gives some idea as to what to look for if you want to go down this route. Start with one you like and suites your life style, get it inspected and go from there. It’s easy.

If you do, leave a comment below and let us know how you get on!

Best we have seen:

Toyota: Tercel, Echo, Yaris, Corolla – 1990 to 2000

Honda: Civic, Accord, CRV – 1990 to 2000

All makes and models in the 1990-2000 range are eligible for refurbishing to near new standards. From our historical records, we have seen that the vehicles listed above are the most reliable and cost-effective for your investment.

It is also important to know that older vehicles can be upgraded with things like heated seats, back up cameras, parking aids and driver assist or lane departure equipment.

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