Five Annoying Problems With Modern Cars That Manufacturers Don’t Seem To Give A Damn About

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Modern cars are pretty incredible. We all know this; compared to what came before, they perform better than ever, they’re more efficient, they’re crammed full of advanced electronics, they last longer, require less maintenance, are more comfortable, and on and on. You saw the review of the F-150 Lightning; we’re in a golden age of new cars and trucks. That said, this golden age is really only for new cars and trucks. Once the luster wears off and cars are no longer new, in that long period where we’re actually living with these machines, then the real problems become clear. And these are problems that, as far as I can tell, no major automaker is really interested in solving, because they’re not particularly sexy or fun and they deal with the tedious realities of car ownership.

These are real, significant problems, though, and they’re the sorts of things that affect how your quality of life with your car is, and, remember, that’s a relationship that will last, at least on average in America, over 12 years. Europe is about the same, and while Japan and China are a bit less, plenty of the world is older.

Cars are more expensive than ever, and they last longer than ever, too (On average, apparently. Though many old cars were built like tanks, I realize). Most of us will have our cars a long while, or be buying used cars that have been around a long while. And as you live with your car and pay to keep it maintained, dealing with wear and damage and all of the encroaching entropy of physical reality, some pretty significant issues become apparent. Here’s the five biggest ones, at least to me:

1. Trash Management

This may sound trivial, but I’ve been in enough people’s cars to know that dealing with the near-constant trickle of refuse and detritus created by life is a struggle, and affects people’s quality of life and their relationships with their. The simple fact is that no car on the market today has any sort of really well-thought-out plan for dealing with trash, and that’s ridiculous.

This is an issue I’ve discussed before, and I probably will keep bringing up, because as far as I can tell, nobody else really is. I get why – what could be less sexy than figuring out how to best integrate an easy-to-empty trash can setup in a car?

People’s cars get full of trash, and there’s no good place to put it. Little aftermarket trash can doohickies exist, but they’re almost always awkward things that hang on seat backs or fit in cupholders and look like cheap garbage. Something good and well-integrated is needed.

If people are shopping between two otherwise indistinguishable crossovers and one has a well-designed way to deal with regular, everyday trash, that one will win. Trust me.

[Editor’s Note: Let’s not forget that much of that trash ends up between the center console and and seat — a gap that everyone hates and whose reign of terror automakers have allowed to continue on. -DT]

2. Forgiving Design

This one I think is actually really important, and is more of a philosophical shift in how we design and build cars as opposed to any one specific thing. In general, it just means that your car should be a machine that is tolerant of you, the user. It should be a machine that can absorb a certain degree of punishment without becoming too impaired. This implies a design philosophy that absorbs and deals with normal wear, tear, and damage in elegant ways, which modern car design very much does not do.

Take bumpers, for example. Modern cars have huge, plastic, painted bumper covers like this:

These bumper covers can house any number of ultrasonic (and other) sensors and lights and other expensive equipment. Because they’re painted, any minor damage looks like crap on them, and because of the electronic equipment they house, they’re incredibly expensive to fix.

A bumper on a common car like a Toyota RAV4 can cost between $885 and $1389, for example. Other sources suggest that bumper replacement can range from $500 to $2,000, and include this maddening paragraph:

For certain luxury cars, you could end up spending several thousand dollars to get a new rear bumper. At that point, you really need to ask yourself if repairing the car is worth it. It may technically be more cost-efficient to just buy a new car.

The fuck? More cost-efficient to buy a new car because of bumper damage? That’s madness. The whole point of a bumper is to take damage. It’s called a bumper.

The same thing goes for wheel design–its way too easy to curb-damage a wheel, and those are expensive to replace. Also, components like headlights which are on the corners of cars, are vulnerable in small wrecks, and have sadly become quite expensive; here’s a $1,700 Volvo headlight, for example.

Car design should, ideally, consider the whole life of the car, and that design should accept the reality of wear and damage and be designed to handle it well.

3. DIY Serviceability

Related to forgiving design of a car is the idea that it should be designed in such a way to allow the owner to easily carry out basic maintenance using simple tools.

Ideally, filters and other consumable parts would be located for easy access and replacement. Under-hood packaging could give more consideration to owner access to parts that are likely to need replacement. There’s smart engineers in the world; if it werw a priority, couldn’t even things like timing belts be made owner-accessible?

Of course, this would mean other compromises for packaging and possibly styling It might make cars less sleek when new, even if they’d be much more likely to be properly maintained as they age.

Of course, dealers want the revenue from service, and carmakers want you to buy new cars, not keep your old ones going forever, so I have very little hope any carmaker will make DIY serviceability a priority.

[Editor’s Note: At Chrysler, there is a team whose job is to make sure that cars are engineered in a way that’s serviceable. This is important, because it affects cost of maintenance even if the owner takes their car to a shop. And that plays a big role in owner satisfaction. -DT]

4. Standards And Upgradability For UX And Electronics

Not too long ago, almost all cars followed a standard for their infotainment systems, like the Double-DIN standard, also known as ISO 7736, adopted in 1984. For a long time, nearly every major automaker was building cars with infotainment systems that met this standard, which means you can take a car that’s 20 years old and upgrade it to have the absolute latest automotive electronics like Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay and a rear-view camera for about $130, incredibly easily, by just sliding a new unit into the dash.

That’s objectively great for a longterm car-owner: a huge upgrade in the car’s UX and features for minimal money and effort. And almost no modern car you buy today is capable of this.

That huge, portrait-oriented display screen on your Mach-e or your big Tesla center screen sure looks great now, but what about 10 years from now when the tech is woefully outdated? There’s no guarantee the computing hardware in your car will be able to handle features and systems a decade from now–in fact, we’ve already seen carmakers require expensive hardware upgrades in older (though not that old) cars to use new features. Current cars do not use any cross-platform standard for their center-stack screens and infotainment systems, so an easy Double-DIN type refresh is out of the question.

That sucks, and it doesn’t have to be that way. An updated standard for center-stack screens and connectors could be established, but the chances of that happening are about as good as Tesla introducing a diesel.

5. EV Battery Standards and Replacement

This is another thing I’ve bitched about before, tediously and, if you’re in front of me while I’m doing it, wetly. At this moment, every EV sold in America must, by law, be warrantied for eight years or 100,000 miles. That’s great, but the average age of cars right now is 50% longer than eight years, and the cost of replacement is, well, usually devastating.

Batteries are proprietary, too, definitely by manufacturer and often by model, so it’s not like there’s a significant third-party ecosystem around to keep competition happening and prices low. When your battery goes, you pretty much have once source to replace it, and you’re looking at a total replacement cost between $5,000 and $20,000.

This is going to be devastating to the used car market, and it also means that everyone who owns an EV over eight years old will be driving around with a very expensive electric sword of Damocles dangling over their heads.

It’s going to be shitty, and, like all of the issues I’ve been talking about here, it doesn’t actually have to be, but the nature of the automotive industry and, I suppose, capitalism and human behavior probably mean it won’t change.

There could be battery standards, if the various automakers wanted them. There are so many clever engineers out there who could come up with a good baseline set of battery specifications that all carmakers could agree to, and there could be a thriving aftermarket of re-manufactured batteries, or competing battery companies, and installation and removal could be easy and getting a whole new battery could be a relatively inexpensive process that could be done on a module-by-module basis or any number of other possibilities.

Of course, automakers have shown precisely zero interest in making this happen, which means that the likelihood of a robust standardized automotive EV battery industry is about as likely to happen as Nathan Lane is to be selected to be the next Batman.

That pretty much goes for all of these issues: fixing them won’t make carmakers any money, so if your plan was to hold your breath until these get resolved in a way that favors car owners like you or I, I’d counsel a different plan.

 

 

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113 Responses

  1. I really felt #4. A few years ago I installed a Kenwood head unit in our 2015 Ford so my wife could use CarPlay and enjoy a bigger screen for navigation. This upgrade required not only an aftermarket console fascia to accommodate the new double-DIN unit but also an intermediary module to allow some of the more rudimentary SYNC features to continue to work. The SYNC unit is now intermittently crapping out and needs to be reset. As luck would have it, the reset procedure can only be performed through the factory head unit because it the aftermarket one doesn’t have access to the SYNC’s GUI. Fortunately we’re putting the car up for sale this month, so this can soon be someone else’s problem.

  2. The EV battery replacement is a big deal. I had a 2014 Chevy Volt and, even though I had 0 repairs during my ownership, I sold it last year because of the battery replacement cost hanging over my head. A few years ago, GM stopped just replacing sections of the Chevy Volt battery, and if you lost a cell, you had to replace the whole battery. The quoted cost tended to be $12,000-$14,000. There are a few places that will do it aftermarket with a 3 year warranty, but it’s still a $7000 job. The car doesn’t work at all if the battery needs replacement. While it probably would have been fine for another 3-4 years, I didn’t want to play that lottery.

    Recently there were reports that GM was discontinuing providing batteries for the Spark EV. They’ve since denied the report, but that was a car that was made up until 2016.

    My parents have one of the rarest GM EV’s, the Cadillac CT6 PHEV. There were less than 300 imported to the US over 2 model years. It’s basically a Gen2 Volt battery, but mounted between the trunk and back seat, but it functions completely differently from a Volt (Turbo 2.0L that will kick in whenever you put the pedal past about 50%, and about 30 EV only miles. It’s a great car, but I don’t know that I’m going to recommend they keep it past the 8 year mark, because I’m worried about GM support and costs if something goes wrong.

    1. So much this. I own a 2012 Volt and I’m going the opposite direction – I’m basically just driving the car into the ground. I’ve driven it 65,000 miles without issue and I figured that in 2020, right at the 4 year mark (I bought it in 2016), it had completely paid for itself through fuel savings alone. So now every mile is gravy, but it still seems such a waste to just ditch the car when the battery goes. And that likely won’t be long now as I only get around 20 miles out of a charge. BTW, awesome car your parents have! I was aware of the existence of those, but I still haven’t seen one in the wild.

      1. You might never notice a CT6 PHEV in the wild, because they look exactly like a CT6. The only clue is a PHEV badge below the door, a charge door, and a 2.0T badge on the trunk lid.

        My folks liked my Volt and were in the market for a new Cadillac to replace their 2008 STS. They were looking at the DTS. At the time, there were alot of 1 year old CT6. Phev that were on the used market with really low miles. All from Michigan. All I can figure is that they were executive driven cars that were then auctioned. The MSRP new was something like $70,000. They paid $44,000 for a 1 year old, Cadillac certified with 5500 miles. It was a bargain and was like new. Nobody knew they existed and they just sat on lots. Fun fact. All CT6’s for the US market were built in the US except the PHEV. The PHEV was imported from China and had no options other than paint and interior color. My parents only complaint is that the trunk is tiny because of the battery and it doesn’t have a heated steering wheel.

  3. re:#1 Have you seen the Maverick FITS-slot trashcan accessory? Despite what their actual marketing material shows, it’s actually a nice interior-color-matched, injection-molded plastic bin and not the janky black 3D printed thing on the sales page: https://accessories.ford.com/products/maverick-2022-ford-integrated-tether-system-fits-package

    Here are a few pictures of mine: https://imgur.com/a/7fmaIdB

    It fits either on the back of the center console (as pictured by me) or in one of several locations in the underseat storage bin (as pictured by Ford). The underseat location makes zero sense – who is going to lift *the entire rear bench* to throw away the hypothetical gum wrapper, and the center console spot is intrusive for any rear passengers (which I suppose is also a good thing for front-seat trash-creators).

  4. #5 is a BIG one!
    Related anecdote: My iPhone SE would go through a 9 hour workday with 40% battery life leftover at the end of the day. Apple ran an OS update I completed on Jan 15, and my phone’s battery life has been random since then. I’ve watched my phone go from 100% battery to 10% in 10 minutes. Whatever they’ve commanded my phone to do, it has made it quite unreliable. And it IS random from my point of view, but very regular. I get by with charging it at work a lot.

    Is my battery old? Yes. Is it defective? No, only as defective as Apple decides to make it. (Yes, I AM salty about it!)

    Now imagine that your car company decides it wants you to buy a new car after the mandated 8 year warranty. What are you going to do? Learn how to block updates?

    1. Not happening tho. Electric cars are too new and the battery chemistry is changing far too quickly to allow for any sort of standard. Tesla is going to the battery pack as a structural member (which is smart, because it reduces weight and thus increases range) and they appear to be leading in development. I’m sure we’ll eventually have a robust industry of “pull/rebuild” companies that can refresh a battery pack because the drive units on most EV’s are 1 million mile designs.

      Once EV’s are stable enough to not require vertical supply chains we might see some level of commonality. Maybe in 20 years.

  5. Serviceability is not the same as design for manufacturability. My wife’s 2014 Fusion Titanium has a backup camera that is now failing intermittently. A query of the dealership netted an $800 quote to repair. A query of RockAuto showed the retail price of the camera is $140. A search of YouTube revealed replacement requires a lengthy disassembly of much of the trunk lid to replace the camera. We’ll be using mirrors.

  6. Going way, way old school here- lack of rain gutters. Some people still smoke, (egads) I personally frequently ride with a very sweet but obnoxiously flatulent Basset hound and others just like a little fresh air. Would be nice to crack the damn windows without a constant stream of water spraying all over myself and the inside of the car.

  7. On DT’s note about Chrysler making sure vehicles are serviceable, you must mean that they take a vehicle that would be serviceable and make it a god damn fucking nightmare to work on. David, Mr. Jeep, do an oil change on a 2015 WK with a Pentastar, then do it on a 2016 with the Upgrade 3.6, and then get back to us on that.

  8. Serviceability should be NO.1 by far. I have owned several vehicles that drastically range in ease of serviceability. My 1996 4-banger Tacoma is ingeniously designed. I can get to anything on it very easily using only 3 different sizes of bolts, and can do so mostly without a lift or jack stands. OTOH We had a Volt and now a Subaru. Good gawd. The spark plugs on the subaru are right up against the firewall. I dread the idea of having to change them one day.

  9. I remember when Federal regs mandated the size and shape of passenger car headlights, and mandated those infamous electric track front seatbelts. The Fed should mandate standardized EV battery sizes (like automotive A, C, D batteries) for different categories of cars. AND all EV’s should have standardized, accessible battery placement. This will facilitate easy-swap batteries. That has so many advantages:
    – gas stations can become battery swap stations for any EV, and drivers can get a new battery in about the time it takes to fill a gas tank.
    – it frees the owner from the tyranny of Dealer battery service
    – It would negate the need for so installing charging stations at grocery stores, etc.
    – it saves the viability of the used EV market
    – the swap station can handle all charging and battery recycling.
    – It would open the EV market to buyers who don’t have garages to charge the car

    Do the Feds still have this authority? The recent ‘right to repair’ laws could also be leveraged to make this happen.

    1. Aaaaahhhhh!!! Big gummint!! Job-killing regulations!! AAaaaaaaahhhhhh! Ahem. Not gonna happen in our currently polarized political environment. Anyone on either side of the aisle might very well come up with some sensible ideas on these subjects, and it’ll immediately die so NO ONE gets to claim a win.

    2. I proposed this awhile back on Jalop and the response from one guy was hilarious. He was all about keeping his precious battery for himself because no one else would take care of their batteries like he took care of his battery. He was like Gollum with ‘my precious battery’, etc. etc.
      But really it’s the future. There are always some people who want to everything their way without understanding how bad their ideas are.

      1. I remember that guy! He’s probably the same guy that repaints his propane tanks and actually gets them re-inspected instead of just exchanging them at a Blue Rhino location when they get grungy or close to their recert dates…

  10. I think it is too early for battery standards: standards will slow down technology advances, which are still necessary.

    Also, there are companies that will replace Leaf battery packs, which seems to undercut your point.

  11. Mr. Tracy, please explain what happened with the PT Cruiser, maybe a future story idea for Serviceability Failures.

    [Editor’s Note: At Chrysler, there is a team whose job is to make sure that cars are engineered in a way that’s serviceable. This is important, because it affects cost of maintenance even if the owner takes their car to a shop. And that plays a big role in owner satisfaction. -DT]

  12. Regarding #3:
    I find DIY servicing and repairs on my newer vehicles to be far easier than on my older vehicles. As an example, I had a mouse burrow his/her way through the foam isolator under the intake manifold on my 08 Tundra and chew through the knock sensor wiring harness on the driver side cylinder bank. A quick look with my $20 OBDII code reader and a short google search later, the problem was identified. NAPA had the harness connector in stock as well as the intake manifold gaskets. I had the intake manifold removed within 10 minutes which, unlike my old SBF manifold, is a dry manifold with no water jacket. No scraping of old gasket material and having to vacuum it out of the intake ports, no gasket sealer needed, the Tundra intake gaskets have O-rings! After a quick solder, shrink tube, and reassembly, the Tundra was back on-line and my hands weren’t covered in oil and grease. I think OBD and improved build quality have done wonders to support DIY wrenching. As long as you don’t own a Tiguan 😉

  13. As others have said the big one for me is Driver visibility, or rather the lack thereof. Tinted windows definitely shouldn’t be standard.

    So with that I’d add a couple more:

    Wasteful chip usage: We don’t need electric seats, electric mirrors, electric hood/frunk/trunk latches, electric windows etc. So when there ends up being a chip shortage it’s a mad dash to find places where they can cut chip usage. Well guess what? When you design a car to ONLY have electric windows, electric hood/frunk/trunk latches, etc. it’s basically impossible to retrofit manual options. However it’s very very very very very easy to convert a car that has manual options to electric ones. Hand crank windows? Just put a little electric motor where the crank went and wire it up to a switch. Manual seats? Design some electric seats, drop them in, and wire them up. Manual hood/frunk/trunk releases? Just install a electric latch and hook it up to power with a toggle switch. You can have luxury seats that are manual with finite adjustments, sit in a Merkur XR4Ti and fiddle with the seat controls some time.

    Weight: The only “compact” pickup sold in the US is over 3600lbs, all over automobiles are horribly overweight.

    Size: Speaking of the Maverick it’s 6.6 inches longer and 6.1 inches wider than my 1994 Toyota pickup which can legally seat 5 AND it has a 6ft bed. I’ve never driven my pickup and felt like it was “compact”, I sincerely doubt I’d feel that the Maverick is “compact” since it’s a bigger pickup than my pickup. Everything is too damn big. I’d argue a new “Scion” (Toyota) iQ remade as a hybrid with AWD-e and given a tow hitch it would get at least Maverick Hybrid MPG and it would make a better work vehicle and daily driver give that you don’t mind towing a trailer. (Get on it Toyota! If it seats 4, is a hybrid with AWD-e, gets better that 35 MPG highway, and turns as tight as the old iQ, I’d buy one in a heartbeat.)

    Turning Radius: We need tight turning cars. In this era of massive automobiles they already take up too much room, and to add insult to injury said massive automobiles don’t even have a semi good turning circle. I’ve never driven a car and felt like ‘This car turns too tight’ but I’ve sure felt that a ton of the cars I’ve driven don’t turn tight enough.

    Replacing passive safety with “active safety”: This combines most of the above problems into one.

    We’ve made massive, overweight vehicles we can’t see out of because we “need” 100 airbags (rally racers, Nascar drivers, etc. do fine without any airbags), because we “need” to survive a head on accident with a semi truck at 80MPH, because we need 300+ HP.

    Because people are “too lazy” to look out the rear window we “need” backup cameras you’re not legally required to replace once they fail.

    Because people are “careless” we “need” Automatic Emergency Braking and when it fails to prevent an accident (because people were relying on it and it failed) or when it causes an accident because it saw a shadow, or a bird flew in front of it and it slams on the brakes at 80 MPH noone is going to blame the automaker for that.

    Honestly if automotive design doesn’t get better I might just have to move to the city and ride a bike everywhere. I’m sick of all this nonsense.

  14. I proposed this awhile back on Jalop and the response from one guy was hilarious. He was all about keeping his precious battery for himself because no one else would take care of their batteries like he took care of his battery. He was like Gollum with ‘my precious battery’, etc. etc.
    But really it’s the future. There are always some people who want to everything their way without understanding how bad their ideas are.

  15. How about a standardized slot for adding in bits like a phone/GPS mount? Something like a pop-in/out cupholder except with a pad for mounting a suction cup pad, or a grip clip for a phone, and a USB port. A simple version would be just the pad unit. It’d be simple to do and would solve some many problems.

  16. The issue with media systems not being upgradable and appearing several years behind your phone is this. They have to be, essentially ‘flight rated’. They have to be able to operate in a noisy, vibrating environment subject to extremes of temperature every day for the life of the vehicle. Remember when Tesla though it could get away with using non-automotive rated screens and then had to replace them all because they failed?

    All this testing and development means the systems are expensive, and that cost has to be amortized over many models over many years. So it’s not economically viable to upgrade the chip set every two years because that would mean another round of time consuming and expensive development testing.

  17. Pedestrian safety or lack thereof “ SUV design with its larger body and taller carriage poses a greater risk to pedestrians and increases the probability of deadly blows to the torso. The higher clearance of factory models (and aftermarket lifted) SUVs means pedestrians are prone to being trapped beneath the vehicle instead of being forced onto the hood of the vehicle or pushed out of the way”

  18. I’m glad non of this applies to me and my vehicle.. I’ve upgraded my 62 continental to my liking and drive it daily…as for trash… It comes out anytime I get out of the car.

  19. Repairability, design to actually be used in the real world without breaking on curbs and such, infotainment upgradability and non-terrible UX…

    I can’t read this whole article. It hurts too much knowing that these things that consume my mind every day will never be fixed. I need to scream.

    1. If designers and manufacturers are doing their jobs properly, minimizing susceptibility to curb damage is something that can be designed in through careful rim design and specifying tire profile. We spent a lot of time on this in the studio.

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