Keeping today’s cars alive a decade from now

Consumer electronics aren’t designed to last more than a few years. After all, advances in technology render computers and phones obsolete long before many of them have a chance to fail. Many people expect their cars to last at least a dozen years. If the car is a desirable one, enthusiasts would like to keep it going…forever. But will this be possible with the latest cars, with their thorough integration of complicated electronics?

As long as cars were mainly mechanical, the worst case scenario involved custom machining a new part or thoroughly re-manufacturing an old one. Expensive, but doable. But what will happen in ten to fifteen years, when a display, circuit board, or microprocessor fails in a 2013 luxury car? In most cases it won’t be possible to repair, refurbish, or re-manufacture the part. The technology will be a few generations old. The factories that originally created the parts will have converted over to newer generations of parts. The manufacturer might still stock the parts, but contrary to common belief there is no law requiring that they do so.

Forward-thinking junkyards that remove fragile electronic systems from cars and store them indoors could and likely will be part of the solution. If there’s enough demand, some companies might specialize in duplicating vintage electronic components. But can we count on one or both of these things happening? Probably for popular models, but what about for those that sell in low volumes?

We’ll start finding out soon. The 2002 BMW 7-Series took automotive electronics to a whole new level, among other things introducing iDrive. These cars are now over a decade old, and have passed beyond both the original and any CPO warranty. Other at least equally complicated car models follow close behind. So far the electronic bits seem to be holding up. But for how much longer?

  • sastexan

    My guess – parts cars. My uncle had a ’99 750iL – early built in nav system; comparable to mid-level cars today – when it hit a decade, all kinds of electrical things started to go wrong. Window regulator ($2500), one of the three ECUs haywire (I don’t recall how much that was), etc. He donated it to a non-profit but they junked it after 6 months evidently when more stuff went wrong.

    The main issue is that these systems are so interdependent it is difficult to just ignore one issue. Example – the climate control in our Odyssey uses the photovoltaic sensor for the headlights. When that had an issue, the automatic climate control got confused too. There are lots of hidden gremlins that will arise as these vehicles get older.

  • I think it’ll depend on how well the electronics hold up in parts cars. I think that the best strategy will be to remove the electronic components and store them in a cool, dry place.

  • MT

    Two observations on this issue:

    1. In those expensive luxury cars, the systems that go bad are more often mechanical or electro-mechanical (think engine systems, transmissions, HVAC, air suspensions), at least from my observations. Interior accessory electronic glitches tend to happen earlier in the car’s life, don’t they?

    2. You can have SAAB displays rebuilt by mail order. (Same goes for electronics of all types.) If a problem is common enough, a fix – if not by the manufacturer, then by a third party – will surface quickly enough. The proliferation of the Internet makes parts quicker, cheaper, and easier to order than ever.

    Now “is it worth it” will be another question entirely.