Today’s automobiles are faster, safer, and more fuel-efficient than ever before. Advancements in manufacturing automation and in-vehicle electronics and software have led to an era of highly reliable passenger vehicles that are built to last. Virtually any used car dealer proves it, with rows and rows of 10-year-old cars, trucks, and SUVs that drive like new.
Technology plays an important role in every aspect of our lives. From the convenience of app-based rideshare services to lifesaving wearable health monitors, we’re smarter, more efficient, and savvier than ever. The automotive industry embodies this, with zero-emissions EVs and intuitive infotainment systems designed for durability and convenience.
By far, the automotive industry has been most successful in developing advanced semi-autonomous safety technologies that save lives. Drivers are safer and less fatigued, thanks to a network of cameras, sensors, and radar that continuously monitor the environment for potential hazards. Nothing lengthens a vehicle’s lifespan more than avoiding collisions.
And then there’s durability, which begs the question: can a car last 20 years? With the right mix of long-lasting components, manufacturing strides, and technology, the answer is a resounding yes.
The EV Revolution
A car is only as strong as the sum of its parts, which is why manufacturers spend millions of R&D dollars crafting durable components and finding ways to eliminate parts with high failure rates. It’s the cornerstone of EV design, in fact, because once the combustion engine is gone, so are the pesky belts, chains, and fluids that support it. Are EVs maintenance-free? No, but owning one gets you closer. Buy an EV and say goodbye forever to oil changes, belts, and assorted fluids.
Electric powertrains rely on fewer mechanical parts for propulsion. These simplified, battery-powered motors offer not only better reliability, but easier monitoring, too. Say goodbye to old-school warning lights, because automakers have spent equal amounts of time evolving vehicle warning systems and integrating advanced diagnostics into every EV’s infotainment system. These systems identify failures before they impact your vehicle’s overall drivability.
EVs also rely less on traditional, high-failure components. Consider your vehicle’s braking system: You rely on it in stop-and-go traffic and use it to remain stationary at red lights. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to brake when you’re driving a vehicle with a combustion engine. EVs employ a new technology—regenerative braking—that lengthens braking system lifespans to as many as 100,000 miles. That’s a big improvement from the typical 25,000 miles observed in gas-powered vehicles.
Notably, manufacturers are removing buyers’ longevity risk, whether real or imagined, by offering EV buyers 100,000-mile battery warranties. Doing so eliminates the fear of the unknown would-be EV buyers face. Embracing new technology often requires buy-in from early adopters, but for automakers to achieve bold electrification goals, mainstream buyers need to get on board. Offering longer warranties is one method automakers are using to eliminate buyer hesitation.
The Role of Technology and Electronics
Technological advancements aren’t limited to the EV category. In fact, every new vehicle contains a whole host of advanced electronics designed to augment expensive components like the engine, transmission, and drivetrain. Also, robotics and automation along the assembly line reduce human error and allow for manufacturing consistency, which produces more reliable vehicles that last longer.
Sometimes, advancements happen in unexpected places. Case-in-point: motor oil. Many drivers remember heading to the service center every 3,000 miles for an oil and filter change. Cheap, conventional oil couldn’t keep engines clean and performed poorly in extreme temperatures. Thanks to newer, chemically-engineered, synthetic motor oils, car owners can run up to 15,000 miles between oil changes.
Another key reason vehicles last longer is engine efficiency. Whether forced by increasingly stringent emissions regulations or simply keeping up with the competition, manufacturers are turning to turbochargers for more horsepower, aluminum for lighter-weight engine components, and complex fuel injection systems that optimize fuel economy. Auto start/stop technology minimizes idling, which helps reduce engine wear and tear.
Modern drivers have on-board computers and sophisticated operating systems to thank for longer-lasting parts. While the parts themselves are manufactured with more precision and automation, advanced diagnostics and app-based data hubs help drivers keep track of routine maintenance. Let’s face it: all the technology in the world won’t amount to much if owners aren’t keeping up with the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedules.
A Handful of Misses: What Didn’t Work
More vehicles than ever contain life-saving driver-assist safety technologies like collision alerts and intelligent cruise control systems (which help tailgaters break the habit). Unfortunately, some manufacturers take it a little too far. EV automaker Tesla recently came under fire for not issuing a recall after its Autopilot system malfunctioned, leading to a series of fatal crashes. While the blame game plays out, consumers added yet another reason to not trust EVs and assistive driving technology.
Tesla’s hands-free Autopilot system is similar to GM’s SuperCruise and Ford’s BlueCruise, but critics cite Tesla’s infotainment system’s games app (which works even when the car is in motion) as evidence that the manufacturer encourages drivers to take their eyes off the road when Autopilot is engaged. Are the failures the result of operator error, then, or hubris on the part of Tesla’s engineers? Regardless, the incidents demonstrate a weakness in hands-free tech—one that puts a damper on the future of autonomous driving.
When it comes to overall longevity, it only takes looking at a vehicle’s most common failure points to understand what isn’t working. Even innocuous parts like gas caps create chaos when they’re poorly made. That’s why automakers focus on every single vehicle component, like headlights. Once powered by acetylene, headlights evolved to include halogen bulbs—and, most recently, LED technology. Next up: adaptive driving beam (ADB) headlights.
ADP headlights automatically adjust the illumination, sometimes as often as 5,000 times per second, adapting to road conditions and other vehicles in nanoseconds. The technology has been around for years, but regulatory red tape has prevented automakers from incorporating it. The NHTSA requires all vehicles to include low- and high-beam settings, an antiquated law that has unnecessarily hindered safety and visibility.
Vehicle Longevity: Good News for Owners
Despite longevity hiccups that originate on the drawing board or emerge as an unfortunate side-effect of government red tape, the march to a 200,000-mile vehicle lifespan is well underway. Stories of intrepid owners stretching their cars to obscene mileage benchmarks used to be the exception, but nowadays, decades of durability is much more common. Newer components are so durable that we don’t need to take meticulous care of our cars to get there, but doing so helps.
Buyers might bristle at the rising sticker prices associated with the newest, most technologically-advanced vehicles, but a $50,000 crossover that lasts 20 years amounts to just $2,500 per year. Add another $3,000 for full synthetic oil changes and another $10k for various repairs, and your car costs around $260 a month, fuel and insurance excluded. The numbers vary, but any way you slice it, the longer your car lasts, the more value you earn.
Manufacturers make it easy for car owners to maximize the life of their vehicles, but ensuring years of hassle-free driving is still primarily the owner’s responsibility. Ongoing care, regular maintenance, and good driving habits all contribute to a vehicle’s longevity—and they’re all firmly within every driver’s control. Technology can only go so far, after all.