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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Why Cars Have Become Difficult

Last weekend, I had to replace a burned out headlight on my daughter's Chevrolet HHR. I figured this was a do-it-yourself job. So I went to my local auto-parts store, scored a new halogen bulb, went home, and popped the hood.

Roughly 45 minutes and a few choice words later, I got the job done. In the course of replacing one burned-out bulb, I used a socket wrench and pliers to partially remove a plastic liner inside the left front wheel well. I took out about a half dozen fasteners, of two different kinds. Then I had to work my hand through a tangle of wires to get at the offending bulb, disconnect it, twist it out, and then replace it. I did all this by feel, because I couldn't see my hand, wedged inside the fender between the half removed plastic liner and the wires and metal around the light.

When I was done, I had to toss everything I had been wearing into the wash, since I'd wound up on my back under the car during the process of detaching and reattaching the fender liner.

Yes, I read the directions in the owners' manual and did what they instructed. Let's just say the manual understated the degree of difficulty by half.

It turns out amateurs like me aren't the only ones wondering why some of today's vehicles are such bears to repair. The difficulty of replacing broken parts or restoring vehicles damaged in collisions is a growing concern to the auto service and collision trades and the insurance industry.

"Vehicles are becoming more and more difficult to repair," says Denise Caspersen, manager of the collision division for the Automotive Service Association.

In their quest to make cars safer, lighter and more fuel efficient, car makers are using more exotic materials in the bodies of vehicles, such as high-strength steels, aluminum, steel-plastic sandwiches. That presents a challenge to body repair shops, because technicians now can't just assume that the metal they are cutting or welding is old-fashioned steel.

Modern vehicles also have more airbags, and more sophisticated electronics under the hood and throughout the body. The complexity of repairing a badly crashed vehicle has led to a rise in the number of vehicles that are declared total losses by insurance companies, rather than repaired, Ms. Caspersen says.

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Tom Calloway, manager of fixed operations for AutoNation Inc., the largest U.S. auto retailer, says in an email that routine repairs can get "pretty serious" given the proliferation of new technology such as continuously variable transmissions, electric steering or onboard computer networks managing various functions.

Throw in a hybrid drive system, and things get even more interesting. Auto service technicians are going back to school to learn how to work safely on hybrid systems.

The concern about repair complexity is spurring efforts by the insurance and repair industries to persuade car makers to make ease of repair a higher priority.

One group called the Research Council for Automobile Repairs (www.rcar.org) is planning to launch a Web site that will offer vehicle designers data aimed at encouraging them to make vehicles more repair friendly, says Joe Nolan, senior vice president for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Vehicle Research Center.

The IIHS isn't directly involved in repairability issues, he says. But the Institute has highlighted the problem of high repair costs in its tests of vehicle bumpers.

Auto makers, as is often the case, must juggle competing demands. When it's time to change a light bulb or an oil filter, I wish I had an old-fashioned car where you could open up the hood, and see the driveway through the big spaces between the body and the engine. But when I go to the fuel pump, or try to find a parking space, I want a car that's light and efficient -- which means all the bits and pieces need to be very close together under the hood.

The drive to reduce weight by making cars more compact will only get more intense as auto makers strive to achieve the new 35 miles per gallon fleet average fuel-economy standard.

Still, car makers are responding to the service and insurance industry's pleas.

Toyota Motor Corp. spokesman Bill Kwong says in an email that Toyota is also designing vehicles with "front crush boxes," that are designed so they can be unbolted after a collision and replaced. Toyota is also designing headlamps to be more easily replaced.

General Motors Corp., about five years ago, intensified efforts to consider ease of repair during the vehicle-design process, assigning engineers from the service operation to work alongside vehicle designers and engineers, says Joseph Fitzsimmons Jr., chief engineer for the GM Service and Parts Operations.

GM engineers now can use a virtual hand, wielding a virtual wrench, to test whether a design that exists only in digital form on a screen will result in a hard time for a mechanic, he says.

The result, Mr. Fitzsimmons says, is that GM is now designing instrument panels so that there are access panels a mechanic, or do-it-yourselfer, could remove easily to get access to fuses or other components, rather than disassembling the dashboard.

For collision-repair specialists, GM designed its new large pickups so that the frames can be cut in sections so that only damaged pieces need to be replaced. The same trucks are designed so that a new front end can be installed without replacing the entire frame of the truck, he says.

"It does get more challenging when you've got a smaller physical space" in a small vehicle, Mr. Fitzsimmons says. "But it's not impossible."

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