The Washington Post

Editor’s Note: Our cars now defy DIY repairs

Toyota's Fun Vii concept car seen at the Washington Auto Show. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

Recently, my kids came home for the holidays, and that typically means a set of new chores for dad (me). My youngest, for instance, decided the family needed to play table tennis, so I spent the better part of a morning digging out the dusty table from all the boxes, furniture, toys and computer parts it had somehow managed to collect over the years.

My oldest, meanwhile, came home with his car in need of a little TLC. We spent a Saturday swapping his stock radio for one capable of connecting to a digital music player, installing new windshield wipers, and, against my better judgment, replacing the driver’s side door handle.

I confess I felt a moment of alarm when I bent the rod connecting the thingamabob to the door lever, just after I stripped the threads off one of only three screws that held the contraption to the door panel.

Somehow we got the handle and the door all put back together, as good as new. And that got me thinking. There was a time when taking a car apart and putting it back together was within the realm of the mechanical-minded.

I know because my father used to tell tales of how he did just that when he was a kid. These days, my new cars have so many sensors and electronic wonders they defy simple repairs. Remember that polar vortex? When the temperatures plummeted, the cold triggered some sensor alerting me to check my tire pressure. Except my tires looked fine, and a day or so later, the warning went off. Now I’m being told my oil life has dropped to 15 percent. My dipstick says I have plenty of oil; but every time I start the car it reminds me I need service.

Those are relatively easy things. I couldn’t start to diagnose problems with my hybrid, or be sure what to do about a clutch and shifter connected to some sort of electronic drive system that propels me in econ, normal and sport modes.

The car business is only getting more complicated. Now we can drive on battery alone, or hydrogen fuel cell, whatever that is. Yet I can’t help but be drawn to these technological marvels. The more gadgets the better, right?

Which is why I’ll probably make another pilgrimage to the Washington Auto Show, the subject of this week's cover story, to check out that which I’ll never fully understand.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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