Technology Could Stop You Working On Your Own Car, Whether You Like It Or Not

The increasing reliance on electronics to control more and more systems in new cars could sound a death knell for car people who want to work on their own machines, and the inevitable march of electric power will make it even worse
Technology Could Stop You Working On Your Own Car, Whether You Like It Or Not

Working on your own car is one of the most satisfying things a car guy or girl can do. There’s the satisfaction of actually completing the work, for starters, and that of learning or practicing skills.

Since this small-scale work generally revolves around older, cheaper cars you could say it’s just a hobby. You could say it’s just about saving labour costs. But the truth for many of us is that it feels like a way of life, building a bond between man and machine that’s forged by the former’s unique understanding of the latter. And this way of life is coming under threat.

Especially in Europe and Japan, where the supply of interesting cars that can be completely serviced at home is dwindling towards none, this is a problem. Eventually the same could become true for America, although the aftermarket parts industry is so strong in the US that it’s hard to see the issue getting out of hand.

Technology Could Stop You Working On Your Own Car, Whether You Like It Or Not

More and more systems in ageing cars are controlled by electronics, be it ever-more complex fuel injection, adjustable suspension or variable-ratio steering. These are the cars we want to be working on at some point, but there is an ever-decreasing amount of problems that spanner monkeys at home can fix themselves.

The sorts of systems we’re talking about often have mechanical components that need replacing from time to time, and it’s possible that modern electronics won’t hinder that. But examples like closed ECU units designed to prevent tampering will stop a big chunk of the fun stuff we like to do with cars.

Then look at the sorts of things that are becoming more common, like electronically-adjustable chassis dynamics. Even ordinary cars are being given ‘comfort’ and ‘sport’ settings these days. If a strut fails it can be replaced, but if the electronics controlling the dampers go haywire, what do you do then? At the moment, that’s not something the average tool kit can fix.

Technology Could Stop You Working On Your Own Car, Whether You Like It Or Not

Likewise media screens. Almost everything new has a big touchscreen these days. If one fails outside of its warranty, you’ll have no choice but to take it to a dealer who’ll charge you a laughable amount of money to fix it. You could try to get hold of the parts alone with a view to dismantling the dashboard and installing the new unit yourself, but the software, if it’s separate, is likely to be kept within the official dealer network.

As we move forward into a time when cities around the globe are being forced to take drastic measures to cut air pollution, electric and hydrogen-powered cars are inevitable. Whether we like it or not, our dailies in 20 years are likely to be a lot quieter than the ones we pilot today. And just imagine trying to work on an ‘engine’ that only has one moving part. Not very satisfying, relatively speaking, and the hazards linked to electric and hydrogen drivetrains will make specialist training essential – maybe even a legal requirement. If electric cars are inevitable, the home mechanic is going to be reduced to a bit-part player.

Technology Could Stop You Working On Your Own Car, Whether You Like It Or Not

This problem clearly has boundaries. The march of technology isn’t going to prevent us changing wheels, brakes, the majority of suspension parts, exhausts (while they’re still used) and lighting, but while the age of internal combustion lasts, it’s possible that software might start to hinder tuning and/or modifications to the combustion process.

Tesla has shown the world that it’s already possible to make fast electric cars, if not amazing-handling ones. Maybe in the future people will start transplanting Model S drivetrains into Nissan Leafs, but that’s not going to require the same set of skills as engine swaps today. Effectively, we’re almost certainly going to have to retrain ourselves or stick to the unchanged basics. Anyway, what would be the point in modifying electric cars for performance when there’s no soul to extract?

Maybe a new generation will take our place; a generation that takes electric power as the norm and figures out ways to spice up what looks like a pretty boring automotive future. Then again, maybe not. Maybe people will simply lose interest. Maybe the number of people who hang on to older, more mechanical cars and keep them alive with constant tinkering will only decrease, until in 100 years just a few anachronistic oddballs remain. We hope not, but in reality we won’t even get a say.



I’m not too worried. Car guys will just have to add computer programming to their arsenal of car modding. We’ll just do what haclers have done for ages, break into the system and configure it all custom. Where there is a will, there is a way. People have modded things that were never meant to be modded since the beginning of consumer products. And we will continue to mod cars, now and forevermore.

01/03/2017 - 09:03 |
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James Drury

Something I don’t get about manufacturers is the ‘Closed ECU’. Why do they believe that doing that will make the car better. People have paid for the car, sowhy remove modifyablility of the car. It seems stupid to me.

01/04/2017 - 12:41 |
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RUBBISH, and i’ll tell you why.
There have always been components on a car that can’t be repaired but have to be replaced. That’s nothing new. ECUs are just another example. Electric cars will be even easier to service at home, because there are less components!
ECUs are already being reprogrammed by third parties. As time goes on the equipment needed to do such things becomes cheaper AND the knowledge needed to to it ends up in the bloke in the street’s hands.
You can already buy hand held computers that plug into your car’s EBD socket to read fault codes and cancel fault codes and make adjustments to your car’s circuits/systems.
What WILL be a problem is when manufacturers program into the car’s ECUs that switch on the ‘service ‘light at the allotted mileage and then a few miles after, the car will not start until you take it to the main dealer to get it serviced BY THEM!
BMW and Mercedes already have this technology in place!
This will not only bugger it up for the guy who likes to save money on labour by servicing his car at home, but also for the private garages who make a living in repairing/servicing cars for paying customers because the manufacturers will NOT make the equipment available outside of main dealers!
Personally, i think that this will end up going through the courts because i don’t see how a manufacturer can legally enforce a customer who owns outright a product to get it serviced by them!
At the end of the day, it is the owner’s choice WHERE he gets his property serviced or whether it is serviced at all…

01/22/2017 - 09:31 |
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Matthew Henderson

yeah, why do you think I’m gonna live in the past (and with a pain in my wallet) and get an Alfa 75? Because I can work on it.

Actually I remember a story my granda told me about the him having to replace his clutch on his Beetle whilist he was at a camping. He had to take out the engine, replace the clutch, put the engine back in and hope it’d still run.

04/01/2017 - 07:15 |
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