Can you tell your carburettor from your crank shaft? Ethical car recycling company Scrap Car Network has designed a quiz that challenges respondents to identify some of the most vital car parts which keep their engines running. Take the quiz for yourself, the results are quite surprising!
Only about 36% of respondents struggled to identify some of their car’s most essential components, hinting that increasingly fewer drivers have the confidence or knowledge to tackle DIY maintenance themselves. Here are just a few of the most likely reasons why!
Evolving technologies require more specialist skill
For decades, the majority of problems with cars have been mainly mechanical in nature, which meant that mechanics have been primarily equipped with wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, ratchets, and similar nuts-and-bolts tools.
Now though, the increasingly software-driven nature of most vehicles means that modern mechanics often need basic programming and technical IT skills too. Almost all cars have an Engine Control Unit – essentially an electronic ‘brain’ that monitors and controls engine power and performance, fuel mixture, emissions levels and more.
Nowadays, mechanics need to use specialised diagnostic tools to interface with the ECU to acquire fault codes, which will help them to identify and fix the problem. These sorts of specialist skills and equipment aren’t always available to most hobbyist mechanics, unless they’re willing to spend the considerable time and effort required to obtain them.
The imminent arrival of electric cars and self-driving vehicles will form even greater barriers to hobbyist mechanics without the specialist skills. Even professional mechanics often need additional training to handle electric vehicles. Plus, AI complexity may mean that core technical skills becomes a bare minimum requirement for anyone wishing to safely work on self-driving cars. And as some unfortunate owners know, certain software issues can kill a car just as surely as any hardware problems. On that note…
Complex and unpredictable software makes diagnosis harder
The increasingly software-driven nature of cars poses other big problems. Even if you’ve got the basic technical skills to tackle them, the unpredictable nature of software issues means they can be complex in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. See, the thing with combustion engines is that everything is linked logically. Problems can be narrowed down to one specific area because one part isn’t connecting properly, or failing to connect when it should, or in contact with something it shouldn’t be.
Where software is involved though, all bets are off. Computer chips now manage air bags, door locks, ignition timing, fuel injection, gear selection, and even the brakes. Even if a car is in perfect condition mechanically, software faults can still prevent it from being driven. The ECU might be excessively limiting the engine power for reasons best known to itself, or the immobiliser may fail to recognise a normally valid key.
Certain software faults can also cause knock-on issues in related systems, and these can be hugely dangerous. For example, a small bug with cruise control can end up causing sudden acceleration, an issue which has the potential to maim or even kill. (Just ask Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who experienced it for himself.) These sorts of problems might prove particularly difficult for hobbyist mechanics to diagnose. Even if they do successfully identify the issue, many would probably wisely entrust the actual repair to a professional anyway.
Mistakes are far more costly (and risky) to fix
The thing about electronic issues is that because they’re so unpredictable, they can be very easy to break and very expensive to repair – two factors which immediately make hobbyist car mechanics more wary of trying to tackle them. With physical parts, things are generally straightforward enough – even if you don’t know how to fix the issue, it’s often relatively easy to diagnose what’s gone wrong, and where. But where electrical issues are concerned, it’s anyone’s guess.
If you have to bring in a professional because you’ve botched a software repair, the labour involved in the re-diagnosis alone can sometimes end up costing just as much as the actual fix. The problem doesn’t even have to be particularly complex to be expensive – just ask anyone who’s had to replace an infotainment display screen, or a reversing camera lens.
And as we touched upon briefly above, there are legal complications. Certain safety-focused issues with software are already extremely risky for hobbyist mechanics to just ‘take a crack at it’ unless they know exactly what they’re doing. So much so that plenty of current legislation already restricts them from trying, and we can’t see it becoming more relaxed in the near future. (After all, if a self-taught mechanic fixed the software bugs in your self-driving car, how happy would you be to take a ride in it afterwards?)
So, it’s all quite the laundry list of barriers for hobbyist mechanics, but that’s not to say all petrolheads have to bring their hobby to a full stop immediately. For practical repairs, hobbyists can still save themselves time and money with simple maintenance jobs like changing fluids and changing spark plugs. Plus, it’s likely to be at least ten years before electric cars and self driving cars become the majority of cars on our roads – leaving casual mechanics plenty of time to tinker and experiment with existing models until then. In terms of in-depth tune-ups and serious modifications though, it looks like it won’t be long until they’re jobs best left solely to the professionals.