Thursday June 12 2014

Are cars softer today?

Automakers are into fitting cars with lots of plastic materials which is a sharp departure from the past. What went wrong or what is it that they are doing right that we may not know and complain about cars being soft these days.

Jude: You saw that hen that knocked a bumper in China. (lots of laughter)

Mustafa: I didn’t see it, tell me.

Jude: There was a Daily Mail story on the internet about a month ago. Someone was driving a Toyota in China and then a hen hit his bumper, it was the other way round not the car hitting the bird. The hen got stuck in the bumper, he stopped the car and pulled it out because it was still alive.

Mustafa: So there was a hole in the bumper.

Jude: Yeah, but Toyota Japan made a statement that the bumper was not originally made by them but one made in China.

Mustafa: So it was a makeshift covering of sorts.

Jude: But some people made comments on how this couldn’t have happened, you know those internet comments. They were questioning how a bumper could be that soft. However, I have seen some cars here in Uganda whereby a simple knock on the bumper is enough to make it fall off literally. So the question people are asking is that why aren’t today’s cars as hard as those made in the 1980s and 1990s?

Paul: It actually comes down to two things. One, simple economics and two, the new traffic safety design is about…

Jude: Oh…..saving pedestrians.

Paul: Especially the western world, that is the biggest market for cars. In terms of economics, the use of plastic polymers or polyurethane or basically plastics have taken over the use of steel. It is not only in the car industry, the latest Boeing A380 has more plastic than aluminium or steel because they have developed plastics strong enough to make panels. Panels that will build planes, cars, fibre glass so the economics part of it comes into play. Two, the argument they use to justify this is (whether it is a cover or not) which makes sense is that it is safer for the pedestrians to be knocked by a car with plastic panels. I will give you an example-most cars today not only use plastic bumpers but also fenders. Look at the Nissan Terrano, Land Rover Freelander, Audi Q7, name it.

Jude: Even this Prado in front of us.

Paul: Yes, they claim that if you hit somebody between 5 to 10kph you are less likely to break their limbs. So there is the safety element and the other argument is that plastic panels are cheaper to replace in case of an accident.

Jude: For me, the argument that makes sense is the economics one that they are saving costs.

Paul: Also cars are lighter these days.

Jude: Yeah, they are not as heavy as those that we saw in the past, it all comes down to saving costs.

Mustafa: I think for me the bigger question is that you may think of it as a conspiracy theory. These cars are made with those materials maybe they should not last as long as they should. So a car becomes a consumable, replaceable in five, six or seven years. So within five years, manufacturers know Jude will come back for another car. But if I build something that is going to last like the Land Rover over there, then I will be out of business.

Paul: (interjects), a 20 year old Land Rover!

Mustafa: So won’t I be out of business? Paul hasn’t given business to Land Rover in the last 20 years. (laughter). And he is looking at another 10 years. You can look at it that way. Making a car more consumable, it is like you get a toothbrush use it and replace it with another.

Paul: In the western world, what they consider as a lifespan for a vehicle is five years. You have heard about the BMW or Mercedes thing about the lifetime gearbox..

Mustafa: It is called sealed for life.

Paul: But what they actually mean is that the five years are the time they expect the first owner to be with the car.

Mustafa: What happens is that when cars go out of warranty, those very expensive cars, you just cannot maintain them. And the warranty is usually 100,000km or three years or whatever comes earlier. They expect that if you are going to get a 10 year old car or a 20 year old car, by then you should have dumped it.

Jude: But if they are making cars that should be dumped after five years, then what of us who buy much older cars in Uganda?

Mustafa: But you are a dumping ground! That goes without saying.

Jude: We are driving 15 to 20 year old cars, so we have already been dumped.

Paul: People, to divert you a little bit, the airplane made out of plastics, they say it cuts down fuel costs by 30 per cent.

Mustafa: So the engine works less. It is also easier to mould plastics into whatever shape you want.

Paul: You design it on the computer and produce it the way you want it.

Mustafa: The production line, it is easier for them to change it the way they want in seconds or minutes.

Jude: So what is the story in there for me who is driving a used car that was meant to last for five years but it is now in its 15th year, what should I look out for?

Mustafa: I think at that point you have lots of rattling in your car.

Paul: The other thing is that you ought to drive a car that has a dealer with those plastic parts. Of course you can repair fibre glass but sometimes not. When it is a bad accident, chances are that some parts have to be thrown away.

Jude: But we have our own scientists preparing to make cars, maybe we should switch to cars made in Uganda.

Mustafa: I don’t want to go there.

Paul: Eventually, even those Uganda made cars will find it hard to get the metallic materials used to build your ideal car so they will resort to plastics.

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