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.

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