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Has modern engine design put an end to tinkering?

Has modern engine design put an end to tinkering?

Humans have been fiddling with our cars almost since the moment they were invented. Back in the 50s, car maintenance was mostly performed by professionally trained mechanics, but in recent decades more and more everyday drivers have taken to performing their own simple repairs or tune-ups. However, today that may be on the decline, as a quiz by Scrap Car Network has found that only 36% of drivers can identify some of the most vital parts in everyday car engines. So does that mean that modern drivers are doing less tinkering and DIY car maintenance? And if so, what are we missing out on?

The key benefits of DIY car maintenance

Let’s be honest – one of the most attractive benefits of DIY car maintenance is that it’s often cheaper. The cost of labour usually accounts for a sizeable chunk of any garage’s final bill, so by saving yourself the professional input you can end up saving hundreds. What’s more, it can sometimes end up being less hassle, since most garages keep roughly office hours. So while the repair itself might be simple enough, you may be amongst those who (for one reason or another) struggle to transport their car to the garage and still get to work on time without it – before doing it all over again when you collect it afterwards. Doing simple, basic repairs at home in your own free time can save you from these sorts of logistical issues, which can sometimes end up causing more stress than the repair itself!

Fixing your car yourself is beneficial from a number of practical and psychological perspectives, too. First of all, getting your hands dirty encourages ‘switching off’ from screens and technology – which can often be good for our mental health. Teaching ourselves practical repair skills also increases our confidence and self-reliance, which makes us better equipped to tackle other jobs like home DIY. As an extra bonus for parents, it also helps them teach the value of such skills to children, helping them to become more independent as they grow, too. (It’s also a great bonding activity for parents and children!)

Finally… well, it’s just so satisfying, don’t you think?

So, why might DIY car maintenance be on the way out?

Well, there are a range of factors involved, but lots of them centre on the fact that cars are getting more complicated. For example, almost all modern cars are fitted with an Engine Control Unit. This essentially acts as the car’s brain, controlling engine performance and fuel mixtures, as well as newer autonomous features like automatic emergency braking.

While it makes the car easier to drive, the flip side is that it makes manual identification of issues much more difficult. Today, diagnosing a problem is often about more than just finding out where odd sounds are coming from – almost all professional mechanics are armed with a fault code reader to interface with the ECU, so they can identify the issue. While the readers themselves are relatively inexpensive and readily available, there’s no denying the steadily increasing role of software in cars – which can make things difficult or intimidating for amateur mechanics.

This is because while hardware often has only so many ways in which to go wrong, software can be uniquely unpredictable. The mostly-mechanical nature of older engines made problems easier to diagnose (if not actually fix). Parts could be missing or damaged, and fixing the problem was usually a matter of repair or replacement. Now however, amateur and professional mechanics generally need programming skills too, as some problems can be purely virtual in nature – for example, an ECU inexplicably limiting the power of an engine in otherwise perfect working order.

Amateur mechanics also have to contend with the difficulty and expense of working around additional technologies, like infotainment systems or integrated reversing cameras. Mistakes can be more financially costly – a replacement camera is more expensive than a replacement spark plug, leaving many budding mechanics unwilling to take the risk of tackling the issue themselves.

That’s not to mention the more dramatic automotive revolutions on the horizon, like self-driving cars and electric vehicles. Both of these are already placing heavy demand even on seasoned professional mechanics, who have to learn new skills just so that they can stay in business.

Does that truly mean an end to tinkering?

Happily, not necessarily! Evolving technologies don’t mean amateur mechanics can’t fiddle with their cars, especially if they’re ready and willing to learn new software and programming skills. The increasingly software-based nature of newer engines have already given rise to newer types of car modifications – such as engine remapping, which boosts the performance of a car by overriding the factory ECU presets. Similarly, the rise of electric cars provides new opportunities for petrolheads, such as the growing cottage industry that’s converting classic cars into electric versions.

Plus, there are plenty of DIY car maintenance jobs still open to amateur mechanics. Changing fluids, flat tyres, air filters and spark plugs are all vitally important for the smooth running of your car, and they’re all simple enough that you don’t need to pay a professional to do them. As long as you’re up to speed on the basics, does it really matter if you can’t tell your tensioning chains from your timing chains, or your head gasket from your crank shaft?

Well… of course, that it depends on what you want from your car. We’ll leave that decision up to you!

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