Why cars last longer than ever: The tech that keeps your car running

We drive more than ever these days. One reason why is that the average commute has increased, meaning we’re driving further and further to work. But there’s other reasons too. The average American now drives some 13,476 miles per year according to the Federal Highway Administration, which is a record. As a result, our idea of “high mileage” has changed. Where even just a decade or so ago a used car with 100,000 miles was considered high mileage — these days you’ll find a plethora of 10-year-old used cars with 150,000 or more miles on them on used car lots.

What are the automotive technologies that are making this possible? To find out, we’ve collected some of the biggest reasons why your car will likely last 200,000 miles if not longer with proper maintenance.

Replacing Belts with Chains

The transition from timing belts to timing chains was one of the first innovations that helped cars last longer, and their widespread adoption is probably one of the single biggest contributors to the increased lifespan of your vehicle. Timing belts and chains control your engine, and when they fail, the result is often a blown engine.

Years ago, it was common for used car owners at some point to need to replace their car’s timing belt. The reason for this is the material the belt was made of: rubber. While extraordinarily durable, over the years the rubber would lose elasticity and stretch over the pulleys on an engine. Additionally, rubber dries out, possibly leading to the belt breaking without warning as the rubber breaks down.

2019 volkswagen jetta volkwagen engine
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

The average timing belt lasts anywhere between 65,000-100,000 miles. Even without failure, the cost to replace is high: in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Most car owners don’t want to deal with this, so it became common for vehicle owners to ditch the car around 100,000 miles and let someone else deal with it.

Timing chains changed that. Instead of being made of rubber, the chain is similar to a bicycle chain, and is made of metal rather than rubber. Obviously, this lasts a whole lot longer. While you may still have to replace these chains eventually, many carmakers say that the chain may now actually outlive your vehicle.

Improving Assembly

While automation has changed the employment landscape of the automobile manufacturing industry, it has also led to more consistency in manufacturing quality. Humans are prone to mistakes and fatigue, which also leads to differences, however small, in build quality. Early automobile factories also weren’t the cleanest workplaces either.

That has all changed. Robots on the assembly line can replicate the same weld, bore, and bolt tightening spec every time. This uniformity in manufacture took human error out of the equation and made cars more reliable.

Walking into an automobile plant these days is also very different. Gone are the days of the dusty, dirty assembly worker. It’s very much a sterile and climate-controlled environment, keeping dust and debris out of the innards of your car, and most importantly the engine where those particles could do the most damage.

The exterior of our cars is also different. With the need for better fuel efficiency, manufacturers are forced to use thinner and thinner metal to cut down on weight. Advancements in anti-corrosion technology have made this possible – and prevents your car from rusting away within 10 years.

Installing better electronics

Improved manufacturing isn’t the only reason why cars last longer, the parts inside our cars are better too. While some might disagree with the electrification of our cars, these systems reduce the number of mechanical parts prone to breakdown and make engines run more efficiently.

2019 audi e tron prototype driving impressions etron extreme power play infotainment offroad

This is also the reason why electric cars are expected to have even longer lifespans than their gas-powered counterparts – meaning we could be driving cars for 300,000 miles or more sooner rather than later.

On-board computers monitor all parts of our vehicles, fine tuning performance to maximize part life – and warning us when something’s about to fail. Not all increases in a car’s life expectancy are related to something mechanical or even electrical: a few lines of code are also making a world of difference.

Introducing Fuel Injection

The advent of fuel injection also led to longer engine life. Older readers might remember their father telling them to go run the car on the highway a bit to see if you can “get all the gunk out” when your car ran a bit rough. There was actually a bit of truth to this.

In older engine systems, the carburetor sent fuel into the engine without precise control as to how much it was sending. Over time and depending on how you drove the car (or even how often you drove), this unburnt fuel would run down the cylinders and begin to build up, causing all kinds of issues up to and including engine failure.

ferrari f40 f50 enzo show supercar technology evolving history 0094
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends

On carbureted engines, this buildup became an issue for many well below 100,000 miles, and it was not uncommon for mechanics to find misfiring engines choked by gunk inside. With fuel injection, that’s not as big of a problem.

Fuel injection precisely controls the amount of fuel injected (thus the name) into the cylinder at any given time. While not a perfect process, gunk buildup is not as big of an issue, preventing breakdowns and issues as a result of gasoline inside the engine case.

Improving Oil Refining and Creating Synthetics

Years ago, the oil we used in our vehicles wasn’t very advanced. It was refined directly from petroleum, and often came with impurities. Conventional oil was also more susceptible to swings in temperature, becoming thicker in the colder months and thinner in the warmer ones.

In warmer months, that thinner “viscosity” as it’s called causes your motor to burn off oil quicker, pushing pollutants into the air and making it necessary for you to use more oil. In the colder months and especially on short trips, the thicker viscosity would cause sludge buildup in your engine’s interior because it is not burning off efficiently.

how to change the oil in your car 2017  dt 2

Synthetic oil answers these problems. It is man-made, and free from impurities. Scientists have also expanded its range of useable temperatures, preventing the changes in viscosity which cause the problems we just talked about.

Additional additives prevent sludge buildup and lessen friction between moving parts – the reason why oil is in your engine in the first place. It also has to be changed less. Instead of the 3,000 or so miles between oil changes that were necessary with conventional oil, now you can go 5,000-10,000 miles without needing to change the oil.

Remember: You Still Need to Take Care of Your Car

Even with all this technology, keeping up with your cars recommended regular maintenance is still a priority. Poorly maintained cars will break down sooner into their useable lives, and more often. Be sure to change your oil, replace parts per your car’s individual maintenance schedule, and address issues as soon as you run into them.

Do that, and your car can last you for half a century or more.


It’s tough to buy a fully American-made car, but here’s 15 that come close

In the age of global supply chains, tariffs, and multinational companies, what does it mean to be American-made? The traditional answers no longer apply, and the vehicles with the most American content may surprise you.
Emerging Tech

Self-assembling microrobots can be programmed to form a tiny steerable car

A new type of self-assembling mobile micromachine can be programmed to assemble into different formations -- ranging from a tiny car to a miniature rocket. Here's why that's so exciting.

Chevrolet’s in-car pizza-ordering app is the start of an ecommerce revolution

Chevrolet has added Domino's in-car pizza delivery app to Marketplace, an ecommerce platform that equips millions of cars built since 2017. Users can order a pizza on-the-go by tapping the screen a few times, and have it delivered where…

The 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 thunders into the muscle car ring with 760 hp

The 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 revives one of the greatest names in American muscle cars, and gives Ford some ammunition in the horsepower war with Chevy and Dodge. Debuting at the 2019 Detroit Auto Show, the GT500 boasts over 700 hp.

How the furious pace of innovation has sculpted the world’s fastest motorcycles

The technology that powers modern MotoGP race bikes isn't just inside of them -- it's everywhere. Literally every single part of the bike, from the brake pad coating to the shape of the gas tank, is painstakingly designed to make the rider…
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Illuminated keyboards and a retro gaming console

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

Volvo invented the three-point seat belt, and it might be the company that kills it

Volvo didn't invent the seat belt, but the firm patented the three-point configuration found in every new car in 2019. Autonomous technology will force automakers to rethink how they keep motorists pinned to their seats, and Volvo is…

What is Android Auto? Pull over and we'll tell you everything you need to know

What is Android Auto? Google's app overrides native infotainment systems to reduce distractions while driving. Here's everything you need to know about it, including the feature set and compatible car models.

The hottest of all Mini hatches is coming with a Batman-approved design

The Mini John Cooper Works GP concept first seen at the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show will go into production in 2020, Mini has confirmed. The John Cooper Works GP is the ultimate performance version of the Mini Cooper.

Airbus-backed Voom could take on Uber’s on-demand flying taxi service

Airbus-backed Voom says it's planning to take its on-demand helicopter taxi to more U.S. cities this fall, a move that could put it in direct competition with Uber's app-based air taxi service launching soon in New York City.

Airstream inspiration Road Chief puts an off-grid luxury camper on the road

Updated for off-grid camping for four people, the Bowlus Road Chief Endless Highways awaits your tow hitch and your wallet. Bowlus design, build quality, and technology in a world-class trailer towable by most mid-sized SUVs.

Ford promises exciting GT supercar news at Goodwood Festival of Speed

Ford will make an announcement regarding its GT supercar at the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed. The GT's racing career is winding down, but could Ford be planning a hotter road-going version?

This ’60s Ford Mustang EV has Tesla-like specs and a Rolls-Royce-like price

British startup Charge Cars planted its flag where electric cars and muscle cars meet when it unveiled a battery-powered 1960s Ford Mustang. Starting with a reproduction shell, the firm added an electric powertrain and modern electronics.
Product Review

2020 Mercedes GLS shows what happens when unstoppable force meets immovable luxury

The 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLS is more than a luxury family-hauler. Yes, it’s got all the luxury features and all the bells and whistles of modern technology, but this three-row Teutonic tank has some serious off-road chops as well.