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Cars are breaking down at record rates, and here’s why

A flat tire on a car.
Have you had to call for roadside service lately? You’d think with all the advances and tech available that newer cars, SUVs, and trucks would be more dependable than ever and roadside service calls diminishing, but the opposite is true. Last year the American Automobile Association responded to more calls for help than ever before, as reported in Fortune.

AAA dispatched roadside service to assist 32 million drivers in 2015, a record for the company. Why are the numbers up? A mixture of new design, new tech, and drivers ignoring dashboard warnings. And AAA has a handle on the most frequent reasons drivers call for help.

“Vehicles today are advanced more than ever, yet are still vulnerable to breakdowns,” said Cliff Ruud, AAA’s managing director of automotive solutions. “Sleek, low profile tires are highly susceptible to damage, electronic keyless ignitions can zap battery life, and despite advanced warning systems, more than half a million drivers ran out of gas last year.”

Drilling down a bit, AAA points to tires and keys above all else. The organization stated that cars less than five years old were responsible for a disproportionate number of calls, largely due to a lack of spare tires and the keyless ignitions.

In the never-ending push to decrease weight for better fuel economy and increase space supporting design flexibility, car manufacturers are replacing spare tires with inflator kits. Full-size and “donut” temporary spares are gradually rolling away. The AAA says inflator kits replaced 29 million spare tires from 2006 to 2015 and the prevalence of the kits increased from 5 percent of new 2006 vehicles to 36 percent in 2015. Whether people don’t trust, don’t like, or just don’t want to use inflator kits when they get a flat tire hasn’t been examined or explained. The numbers, however, show that flat tire calls to AAA are way up.

Older vehicles, specifically those 6 to 10 years old, were involved with the greatest number of dead battery calls, but drained batteries and lockouts due to keyless ignition systems resulted in more than 4 million AAA calls in 2015. The problems with keyless ignition systems usually result when owners store the activating key fobs too close to the vehicle. Hanging your keys in the garage next to a car is a mistake — store your keys at least 10 feet from your vehicle.

It turns out also that drivers aren’t using dashboard fuel range estimates and low fuel warnings as signals to refuel immediately. More often, says the AAA, drivers are putting off making fuel stops by relying on range estimates or just ignoring the warnings.

Another roadside service call pattern reported by AAA is the higher frequency of towing. One in five calls for late model vehicles results in towing to a dealer or other service facility. The complexity of newer vehicles more commonly rules out roadside repairs, so towing is more frequent.

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