Why has the auto industry begun putting computers in cars when it makes car repair so complicated?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Oct 01, 1995

Dear Tom and Ray:

Can you tell me why the auto industry puts computers in cars? What is the advantage? It used to be that any mechanically minded person with experience could repair a car. Now, of course, it is necessary to take the car to the dealer or to a factory authorized repair shop which has factory trained mechanics. Was this the reason computers were introduced?

TOM: Yes. Back in 1983, a secret meeting was held in Paducah, Kentucky between mechanics, bankers, and the chairmen of the "Big Three." It turns out that the mechanics across the country were falling behind in their boat payments, and bankers brought the three parties together because they didn't know what they would do with all those thousands of repossessed boats. By the end of that meeting, they resolved to make cars so complicated, that no one would be able to work on one in a driveway again. Then the mechanics would get more business, the bankers would get their boat payments, and everyone would be happy. I think Oliver Stone is working on the screenplay as we speak.

RAY: My brother's being a wise guy, Margaret. No one specifically set out to make cars more complicated. But they certainly have gotten that way. The main reasons for computers are emissions controls and improved fuel economy.

TOM: Computers have allowed cars to have sophisticated fuel injection and engine management systems that would never have been possible with carburetors. Through the use of various sensors, the computer can tell how dense the air is, how cold the engine is, how hard you're stepping on the accelerator, whether you flossed your teeth before you left for work, and can calculate from all this data the precise amount of fuel to send into the cylinders. That means minimal waste of fuel and a lot less pollution. Not to mention better performance and greater reliability.

RAY: But it has come at a cost. In my opinion, a social cost more than an economic one. Tinkering with cars used to be a great American pastime. Guys would spend Saturdays out in the driveway taking things apart, and then trying to put them back together before it got dark. And that's no longer possible.

TOM: And I don't think we realize the widespread ramifications of this change. For example, what do those guys who used to work on their cars do now? They sit around, watching TV, feeling useless and picking fights with their wives. So the increase in the divorce rate is directly attributable to the introduction of computers in cars.

RAY: Tinkering with cars also used to present an opportunity for father-child bonding. That's gone too. And when parents aren't directly involved in their kids lives, we all know the crime and drug abuse rates go way up.

TOM: Laundry detergents used to be sold on their ability to remove grease. Where did that grease come from? From engines on Saturday afternoon! And the clothes that couldn't be "Fabbed" and "Duzzed" and "Whisked" fueled the entire Goodwill industry. Gone now, due to computers in cars.

RAY: Plus, being out in the driveway gave neighbors an opportunity to meet and get to know each other. This would often lead to socializing, the building of "communities," and invitations to barbeques.

TOM: That's right. So the decrease in the sales of red meat can also be laid at the feet of computers in cars.

RAY: There's the hope for the future! As soon as the American Beef Association figures this out, they're going see a major lobbying effort to bring back the carburetor...probably with a series of TV ads starring Robert Mitchum. I think your worries are over, Margaret.

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