Just Give Me a Basic Car, Detroit

Memo to automakers: Please reintroduce some traditional analog gauges as standard equipment for the typical American car's dashboard. I'd particularly like this for the gauge that monitors system/battery voltage. The analog version goes through a little dance when you turn the ignition key to let you know the starter will fail a few days to a month before it actually does. Your modern digital readout displays don't lend themselves to that sort of detail.

There's a host of applications other than automotive where I need analog instrumentation. Nevertheless, automakers, you actually provided some basic circuitry in a proactive capacity — both analog and digital — over the years. You should just complete the job.

Reject the notion, if you ever had it, that you tread on the turf of those working in the auto repair business. Mechanics tend to offer that curious argument when discussing simpler yet useful systems, but that argument is a non sequitur . I need to see the mechanic whether the car gets to him via tow truck or I find a way to drive my smoking and choking auto there before it gives out. The issue is not getting stranded on the road at any time if I can help it. Help me do that.

Besides, today's autos are way too complex for me to service, even for the simplest jobs. I don't have the time or even the basic knowledge to reset my mileage counter after a simple oil change — even if I could gain easy access to the oil pan and filter. Do I resent it? You bet. One recent article discussed models that no longer provide the owner another kind of analog instrument — a dipstick. If true, that's just not right.

Providing gauges where I can see the rate of change (versus an idiot light that often indicates a failure after the fact) gives me time to drive to the shop instead of being towed there. I'm not willing to put up with being towed at my age, even as a member of the American Automobile Association (now AAA). There's no good reason today not to know about a simple end-of-life condition weeks beforehand.

We now have new economics. People aren't made of money, as they tell me every day. More of them aren't sure about the future of America, and I'm more pessimistic than they are. As a result, I'm holding on to my autos a lot longer (up to 15 years), and I'd expect to see more people in the senior community doing the same. Older cars tend to need more attention — which, by the way, gives the mechanic some work to do. Deliver a machine that gives us a lot less unexpected grief as it ages.

I appreciate the various general and safety innovations you've added — having the car drive itself, monitoring the air pressure in my tires, and wiring in access to glucose monitoring systems for those of us who are diabetic. But the core function of the automobile is getting me from point A to point B with five-nines reliability. I don't expect that perfect a car, and I recognize we run into a bit of conflict when trying to produce a quality auto with components that have reasonable lifetimes. That tradeoff goes all the way back to Henry Ford's efforts to create a profitable production line. But that tradeoff isn't good enough in today's world, where we need a car that's going to work well for 15 years.

Give me more diagnostic-type instruments on the dashboard and a dipstick. Also, give me a system that immediately detects a pin-leak of transmission, brake, or power-steering fluid or any of the other lubrications that tend to exude from various joints, seals, or whatever. All those lost fluids don't necessarily hit the ground, and they can't be distinguished from water during our increasingly extended periods of rainfall here in the Northeast. Some leaks aren't even detected during a routine visual inspection, and then it's too late. Some of these failures lead to thousands of dollars of damage. That's been true in my own cars over the years, despite my best efforts to keep up on maintenance. How many times have I heard that a system breakdown was “one of those one-in-a-million things”? I no longer buy it. We can do better.

Yes, it's a great feat of engineering to transform a car into a communications center on wheels to meet the demands (but not necessarily the necessities) of today's world. Worthwhile complicated systems are OK, but I'd prefer a system without today's standard bells and whistles. To me, those features are a collection of toys that can be a distraction on the road. I'd rather have a basic car.

How much would it cost you to provide me with the degree of advance-notice monitoring I want, minus the presently standard features I don't want? Who knows? You just might sell more cars to a growing senior market worldwide. Just talk to me, Detroit.

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12 comments on “Just Give Me a Basic Car, Detroit

  1. eafpres
    July 18, 2013

    Hi Vincent. I drive old cars.  Not that I wouldn't love a brand new car, but I have two working ones and can't find a compelling reason to change them.  The one I drive the most is my 1998 Toyota 4Runner with a V6.  It has 306,000 miles on it, runs great, and I like it.  Analog speed, tach.  No pressure gauges though.  Digital clock that failed once and cost $300 to replace.  No fancy displays.  I really like electronics, but agree wtih you there are basic things I want.

    Given that, where do you stand on digital (i.e., LCD, or perhaps soon OLED) displays mimicing analog gauges?

  2. vbiancomano
    July 18, 2013

    @eafpres—An interesting question. When it comes to monitoring battery voltage, I'd likely be fine initially if the digital display's mimicked output truly reproduces the analog meter's rate-of-change response. At the same time, I'd hope to have the data to compare the 15-year reliability of the digital display's electronics against the mechanical-based analog system. Or to perhaps say it another way, I would never be willing to spend, say, $300 to replace a digital-based battery voltage monitor, as pretty as that display might look on the dash.

  3. Davidled
    July 18, 2013

    Unfortunately, Today, all vehicle has more electronic and computer. Also OEM has tried to replace mechanical parts to electronic parts, even though mechanical part is more reliable. Sadly, I noticed that old car displayed oil temperature, but a few new car models have no display for this.

  4. Brad_Albing
    July 19, 2013

    @Vincent – just to that one point regarding spending $300 – there is pro'ly a whole 'nother blog there on why it costs $300. If we look at the standard MLB (materials, labor, burden; not major league baseball), we see that some of it is the cost of the parts (materials) of course.

    Is any of that $300 the cost to install it in your car, or is that just the dashboard assembly?

  5. Brad_Albing
    July 19, 2013

    @DaeJ – I guess some of the consideration for gauges comes down to the fact that not everyone wants to know all that information. I and you would like to know the oil temp, but probably the average driver doesn't care about that and would not use the information. So the car manufacturers remove gauges and replace with indicator lights or just remove and replace with nothing.

  6. Netcrawl
    July 19, 2013

    @B-Albing you're right there! the average car owner doesn't like the idea of placing a gauge in their car, its useless, they dont even used those gauges, even doesn't care what sort of display it shows- the temperature, they ignored it. But they love the music, its a great things to them to have a good sound when driving.

    I remember my dad he used to fix his own car, putting something like music box, replacing and removing those unnecesarry scraps ( the gauges) that's what he called that. 

  7. eafpres
    July 19, 2013

    @Brad–“Is any of that $300 the cost to install it in your car”

    In my case, it was a combination of parts and the labor to install it.  I probably could have installed it, but you have to take a lot of the dash apart to get to it, so I had the dealer do it.  As I recall, though, the clock cost around $235.  The main reason for that is that, as an old vehicle, it is a service part that has been sitting in inventory somewhere for a long time.  They mark up the parts a huge % to pay for having them in inventory for at least 10 years (that is the industry standard for parts availability last I knew).

  8. Brad_Albing
    July 19, 2013

    @eafpres – I agree with the “take a lot of the dash apart” problem. I hate doing that. I think I'd rather swap out the tranny (assuming I had a lift and a jack-stand for the transmission).

  9. Scott Elder
    July 19, 2013


    This is an interesting question in pyschology.  I think those who grew up learning to drive with analog instrumentation will always feel more comfortable with moving needles..even if they are mimicked on a display.  But, personally, if there is nothing I can do about a problem in the car–then I don't want to know about its analog status on a guage.  Just tell me there is a problem and the severity level (i.e. oil pressure dropping – go in for service! now!)  


  10. Davidled
    July 21, 2013

    OEM focuses on fuel efficiency. In order to reach their goal, more electronic is required in the powertrain and other module including vehicle frame to reduce the fuel amount every sector of vehicle. Consequently, digital display is indispensible whether customer prefers this kind of display or not. Also, it seems like as gas price goes up every year, customers seek any vehicle that is fuel efficiency.

  11. RedDerek
    August 6, 2013

    @BAlbing – The real question is if one has all the gauges and stuff, would they understand what one means over the other. Cars now have the diagnostic ports and people just drive a machine without understanding the operation. They expect the mechanic to deal with the details when something goes wrong.

    It is probably just us old folks and engineers that understand what all the gauges mean and how to interpret them.

  12. Brad_Albing
    August 6, 2013

    @RedDerek – 'Tis sad but true.

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