Monday, November 8, 2010


Ron, whom I met in 1964 at Camp geiger, sent me this great piece a few weeks ago. I saved it to post on a date when I know I'll be working 15 hours the day before, so will not have time for a Digest. Wanted it to get a full day's airing--great stuff. ~Bob.

Counting Green Beans and the Modern Automobile

By Ron Pittenger

Regular TOJ readers know Bob and I banter about which we should hang first, lawyers or beancounters. I think beancounters were in the lead at last check, but I could be wrong; it’s been almost a week. This is the tale of two examples of how beancounters have changed our automobiles over the past few years.

Early this Fall, my wife’s car, a 2008 model, had a tire with low pressure a few times, so I decided to get the leak fixed. I drove to a tire store and asked them to repair the tire. They removed the wheel from the car, took it into their inner sanctum, mumbled some incantations, and came back out with the tire. It was still visibly low.

“We can’t fix this. It appears to be the valve stem that is leaking. That is part of the Tire Pressure Monitor, and has to be fixed at the dealer.”

“Why can’t you just replace the valve stem?” I asked.

“Because we can’t get the monitors, and if we did, we couldn’t program them.”

“You mean there’s a computer inside the tire?” I asked.

“Yes, sir, that’s exactly what I mean.”

They put more air in the tire, then I drove to the dealer. I told them what the tire store had told me. “Certainly, sir, we can fix you right up. Did you want to come back for the car tomorrow or the next day?”

"I need to leave it overnight to replace a valve stem? That’s a 15 minute job. I can see two empty bays in the shop.”

“No, sir, that used to be a 15 minute job. Now, we have to remove the old monitor, replace it with a new one, and then program the new one. With luck, it won’t take more than two or three hours, if the internet connection doesn’t fail. We’ll have the part in tomorrow. The mechanic will do all the hardware work in about an hour and the rest of the time is for the computer guy to set it up to work with your car.”

“How much are we talking about for this?” I asked. “Between $140 and $160,” I was told. “Unless you want a new tire as well, in which case, add the cost of the tire.”

“Are you serious?” I asked (in not quite those words).

“Yes, sir,” he said.

It seems starting in model year 2008, all new cars are supposed to have this fancy device inside the tires to tell the driver if the pressure is low. It’s to save gasoline, because everybody knows you get better gas mileage when your tires are properly inflated (Thank you, Al Gore). This is clearly a bean counter’s answer. Only God knows how much it has added to the price of a new car.

The life of a tire is around 35,000 to 50,000 miles, minus any road hazard damage encountered. The average life of a car today is around 140,000 miles. At even a deeply discounted charge of $100 per tire change, that means someone will be spending $1200 or more just to change tires for normal wear during the car’s life. I suspect the gas “saved” will never add up to $1200, even over several owners’ lifetimes. But, it sure looks good when someone asks “What have you done for the environment?”

I took the car and tire to a junkyard. Their tire guy had me in and out in less than half an hour, for less than $6 including the tax.

Feeling quite proud of myself for having solved that problem, the next day I took my car to be inspected. The gods frown on hubris. It failed. “How come?” I asked.

“Because your on-board monitoring system says your airbag isn’t connected and your ozone emissions are too high.”

“How do you know that? We just had major electrical problems a few weeks ago, and it may have messed up the computer. Besides, you never hooked the car up to the emission tester.”

“We’re required to believe your on-board monitoring system, sir. Go to your dealer and they can fix it.”

I went to the dealer, explained the problems, reminded them of the electrical problem they had fixed weeks earlier, and asked that they check the emissions to be sure something was wrong with them before they tried to fix the problem. That was Monday.

It took them about two hours to “fix” the airbag problem. It was a bent contact. Zero dollars parts, $220 labor. They told me I needed a new on-board monitoring module, and it would be in on Tuesday. I went back on Tuesday to be told “they sent to wrong module. Come back Wednesday.” I went back Wednesday. They had the correct part. They installed it for a mere $400. But, they couldn’t verify the emissions yet, because you have to drive the car for 150 miles or so first. That lets the sensors get a real reading, I was told. Come back Friday after driving around 150 miles.

Friday morning I returned. “Failed inspection again. O-2 sensor needs to be replaced. Don’t worry, it’s under warranty, repair will be at no charge. We’ll let you know when it comes in.” Today I’m told it will be in Wednesday, 27 October 2010.

When I asked if they had ever checked the emissions with the probe and analyzer: “No, all those machines were leased through the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. They knew 10 years ago they’d be going to pure on-board systems, and wouldn’t authorize the sale of any of the units. They were all returned back in 2008. I don’t think there’s one anywhere in the state.” So, not only do I have to answer to beancounters, I also have to count my own beans before I get to them.

I sincerely hope next Wednesday finally solves the problem. But, I’m not going to hold my breath. I’m starting to feel like Jonah when he first met the Whale.

For the record, these cars have different old, respected American nameplates. Neither are on anyone’s “don’t buy” list. The 2006 has just over 79,000 miles, and the 2008 has about 64,000. Both were purchased as low-mileage used cars (formerly leased) from different dealers in different towns. The point is not that these are bad cars because they aren’t. We’re both very happy with them, and neither has cost much to maintain until now. The point is that the beancounters have injected themselves into the process and messed it up.

The car business is tough enough without help from the beancounters. Let me tell you the story of a “bad” car. About 1960, the French auto maker Citroen tried to emulate the success of VW in the US market. The cars were very inexpensive, seemed to run forever on mere fumes of gas, and were not quite ugly enough to frighten a small child. Citroen did well for about 1 year. Then, all the design flaws began to show up.

The simplest to understand was the tire problems. If you had a flat, you couldn’t change the tire. You had to call a tow truck to drag or carry the car to the nearest dealer. Citroen dealer, that is. Special tools were required to remove the entire quarter of the car where the tire was located, just to reach the lug nuts (the fenders covered them). More special tools were needed to loosen those nuts and remove the tire, then tighten them up on the new tire and re-assemble the car. It took between 2 and 3 hours—in the dealer’s shop—to change a tire. And, each time, it cost about 5% of the car’s purchase price to do it. There were similar problems with oil changes, etc. Whoever designed the thing never gave any thought to repairing it when problems occurred. By 1965, Citroen had left the US market.

By allowing the beancounters to dictate how we build cars, we are now in the process of doing this same thing to ourselves. I vote to hang the beancounters first. All in favor say “Aye.”