The Truth About “Planned Obsolescence”

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Have you noticed how quickly new cars get old?planned obsolete pic

Buy it today and – three years down the road – an “all new” version is introduced. At that moment, your car becomes yesterday’s news.

It’s not your imagination.

The interval between model cycles – the car industry term for the shelf-life of a given vehicle before it is significantly updated or replaced by a complete redesign – has been getting shorter. It’s now pretty standard for most automakers to “refresh” each model in their lineup about 3-4 years from the date it was introduced as “all new.” And it’s becoming not too unusual for an “all new” model to receive a major update before three years have elapsed. Some are significantly updated just a year after launch. Very few vehicles remain on the market more than five years before they are completely redesigned – from the wheels to the roof.

In the past – before the 2000s – it was not uncommon for a “new” new car to remain in production for 6-8 years with only minor cosmetic and functional tweaks during that time.planned osbolete 2

So, what’s changed?

The pace at which federal mandates – especially those regarding “safety” – are issued. It is often necessary to fundamentally re-engineer a car that was fully compliant at the time of its launch just a  couple or three years after its launch – in order to keep up with the latest requirements.

But it’s not just the government that’s egging this along.

Magazines such as Consumer Reports and quasi-private entities such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) get a lot of ink when they publish their annual “safety” ratings of new cars. These ratings are based on the latest tests they can devise – and they evaluate the cars relative to the latest federal crash standards.

But, here’s the rub:

Most “2014” model year cars are the same as they were in 2013. And 2012. The relative handful of actually new 2014s will be the ones most likely to earn the much-coveted “5 Star” and “Top Pick” recommends from CR and IIHS. Because these cars are closest in line, design-wise, with the latest federal mandates as well as the CR and IIHS crash test protocols. Carryover models – the industry term for cars that are pretty much the same this year as they were last year – are at a disadvantage. A car that earned “5 Star” or “Top Pick” recommend last year may slip to “4 Star” just a year later – and that puts a lot of pressure on the car company that made it to re-make it such that it recovers its previous rating.planned osbolete 3

And that’s why the interval between model cycles has been getting shorter – and will get even shorter in the future. There will be more rather than fewer federal mandates – and these will come faster and sooner than they used to.

But it doesn’t mean that your three-year-old car is “unsafe.” The car industry – and the related industries, like the insurance industry – want you to live in perpetual fear that unless you’re driving the Very Latest Thing, you’re driving an unsafe thing. Poppycock. As with tailpipe exhaust emissions – which have been effectively nil for decades, with literally fractional additional reductions made at ever-higher costs since the early 1990s – we long ago reached the point of diminishing returns with regard to “safety.” The improvements are now and have been for many years incremental – and increasingly expensive.

There is no such thing as an “unsafe” new (or recent vintage) car – just as there is no such thing as a “polluting” new (or recent vintage) car.

But there is such a thing as an expensive new car.

And they’re going to get even more expensive in the years ahead.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, GM was accused of deliberately making year-to-year changes – usually, trivial cosmetic changes – in order to make the already-sold cars look old, like yesterday’s news – and thereby put social-psychological pressure on keeping-up-with-the-Joneses Americans to buy a new car every other year.

It was derisively called planned obsolescence.planned obsolete 4

The difference between then – and now – is that what GM did was mostly superficial and entirely non-coercive. A ’57 Chevy had bigger fins than a ’56 and there were other changes here and there. But the basic car was the same. And – key point – GM wasn’t being forced to make fundamental design changes by the government – or to shut up pushy insurance cartels.

This meant that the basic underlying architecture of a car – its “platform” – could be kept in production for many years without major alteration. That amortized the costs of designing – and building – it. Which made a given car more profitable and – at least in theory – meant it ought to cost  less to sell it.planned obsolete 5

It is probably not a coincidence that the literally explosive uptick in the cost of a new car over the past 20 years tracks very closely with the federal government’s much more frequent decrees relating to “safety.” Some of these – for instance, the latest pedestrian-impact standards – require wholesale changes to the car. Not just to its cosmetics, but to the underlying chassis. This often means re-doing the entire car  – before the existing car has been on the market long enough to earn back the money invested in R&D, tooling and so on.

Put another way, it means there’s less time to make a profit on the investment. The only way out of this conundrum is to adjust prices upward, to make up in per-car profit what might otherwise have been earned over time (and volume).

Which means we pay more for today’s cars – and will pay even more for tomorrow’s, if this cycle continues to accelerate.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  1. As long as people continue to buy “new” cars, this will keep going on. In my growing up days [50s – 70s] people thought nothing of accepting hand me downs. Now, no one wants good used merchandise. But new comes at a steep price, that is seems people will pay even if they are eternally in debt. And we did not have “kardashian deprivation syndrome” to deal with. What I am really saying is that amoricans are now getting what they wanted.

  2. Just bought my 16 yr old son his dream car.

    a 4WD, 4 speed, 79 Chevy Stepside.

    we added Throttle Body Injection from a 90 model, and A/C from a 82 model, but other than that its plenty modern, easy to work on, and pretty much bulletproof anyway.

    we have a 04 Expedition that we bought a few years ago at a repo auction, but if it gives us much trouble, I’m gonna ditch it and get a 88 K-5 Blazer.

    they make the newer cars needlessly complex, for no apparent reason.

    on the expy there are 5 relays permanently soldered to the circuit board in the fuse box, yes the fuse box has a circuit board, naturally the relays that are defective and undersized from the factory are the ones that dont just plug in to the board.

    and other stuff like the power window switches are not connected to the window motors, they connect to a computer that signals the window motor to go up or down.,

    the heater fan speed knob is not connected to the heater fan, iots connected to the computer……

    • Justin, you the man. I have an ’82 3/4 T 4Wd with a one ton rear end from a crewcab. It has a 454 that jumped time and 4.10 gears. I have pulled 18 wheelers with it. Run out to the end of a 7/16″ chain, dig 4 holes, back up and do it again. I had a water well driller I drug all over the country with it. He was astounded. Next time I saw him he had a 3/4 T Chevy 4WD and couldn’t say enough good things about it. Does the TBI need any info from the tranny? Mine has a Turbo 400 and I wouldn’t think of replacing that unless it was with an OD tranny from a newer diesel(it was originally a 6.2 diesel).

      • The TBI doesnt need any info from the trans, other than the speed sensor,
        which is on the speedo cable.

        the 454 TBIs are not hard to find, easy to swap has a lot of TBI swap info.

        I have a automatic OD in a 82 6.2 that Im parting out.
        I thought all the diesels with automatics had an OD? a 700 R4 maybe?
        you close to Atlanta?

        • Justin, thanks. I’m in west Tx. I wasn’t aware ’82’s had OD trannies. It was later than that I remember the 700R4 and the first couple years weren’t so good. Everybody was jumping on the 6.2 wagon out here to pull a couple cotton trailers and big goosenecks but the 700’s wouldn’t hold up for the first or two years. So what is the OD tranny in your rig? The 700R4 as best I recall wasn’t nearly as stout as the 400 but it may just have been an OD problem. Seems like if you didn’t use OD when you pulled really big trailers they would hold up but I do remember the first year and Everybody I knew with one ended up getting a new tranny courtesy GM. A friend bought this pickup and had hell with it. It wouldn’t start with the 6.2 and the dealer(went out of business that year)wouldn’t, couldn’t fix it. I told him the problem was sucking air. You could change both filters and prime it and it would start but not the next time. Well, that tells me it was bleeding off sitting and it doesn’t take much of a leak to do that. It was probably on the tank but the dealership didn’t even try to fix it. I showed him a couple times it was sucking air when we’d change to new filters and prime it. After he pulled the 6.2 another guy bought the engine and ran it half a million miles in another truck. I think my point was made there. Everybody I knew with a 6.2 ran them into the ground with fairly much no problems. Any time a diesel won’t start it’s lost it’s prime, without fail. If it gets fuel it will start, no if’s and’s or but’s. I’d like to have that OD you have but I’ve got too many other irons in the fire. I may have found a donor for my ’93 turbo diesel I rolled. It’s taken me two years to find another diesel cab. People think a gas cab will work but it’s almost like rebuilding a truck. Even the transmission tunnel is different as well as not having the wiring harness, and mine is a manual so you need all those access points for clutch, as well as the bolt holes, etc. You could work for months converting a gas cab to accommodate a diesel, esp with a manual.

          I would like to have that 82 rolling though since it was stout in every way and had the 4 shock front end on it. Everything on it worked when I parked it. The problem was the latches on the doors(and the engine jumped time and was worn out) were worn out and they weren’t available from anybody, including the aftermarket people. The diesel radiator was great, the a/c was cold, cold and the body was not really dentable in any real sense. I do miss it. I miss my 93 even more since it was dead reliable and still runs like a top. I have no use for a newer pickup.

          • my uncle bought it new in 82,
            they saved every bill and receipt,
            there is a receipt in the folder for a new trans early in their ownership

            trans was working fine, engine smoked , alot, think we overheated it , blew the heater core , doubt it cracked the heads, but might have.

            got some vids on youtube of my then 13 yr old son doing donuts in it in the grass.

            i drive a 2012 pickup courtesy of my employer, I wouldnt buy one.
            too expensive, $36K for a 2wd crewcab, and waay too complicated.

  3. It used to be prestigious to get a new car. I think there’s a backlash now, especially to all the “entertainment software.” Software becomes obsolete almost overnight. We’re talking functional , not stylistic obsolescence

    In most cases, when I see someone driving a new car it seems like they have made an unwise investment.

    There are exceptions of course. The Euro diesels make you giddy. For me, it might be worth buying all that digital crap that “if” it were attached to a V-6 CLA, or the next generation Mustang when it comes out.

  4. Considering the accelerating pace of technology and features that are available; I believe you would see this happening WITHOUT government pressure.

    • Ah, but one would have a real choice between buying the shiny new toy, and refurbishing the old one in a truly free market.

      For me… I hope my 2002 Saturn will hold up until I’m no longer able to drive. And the day that I don’t drive safely and well is the day I hang up my keys. It would be fun to think that I could get a “flying car” before that time, but I’m not optimistic. Maybe I’ll get a horse and a wee buggy instead. Unfortunately, it is far cheaper to maintain the car than it would be to keep a horse. Raggenfratzen…

      • Mama, you got it. I don’t want a pickup newer than ’93. Not a single thing I can’t fix and no need for a fancy electronic gizmo since it has no computer. It’s probably technically illegal now according to DHS since there is a hidden “space” in it, the place where a computer would reside on a gas engine model. I have seen people with brand new ones dead in the water. Can I help? What did it do? Nothing, it just quit and the dash lights come on and so do the gauges but nothing else works. Gee, good luck with that. Need a ride?

        What model is this truck? a ’93. Wow, it looks brand new, inside and out. It’s had a paint job and I keep the inside up. Hey, how are you pup? Nice pit. What’s his name? Cholley Jack. He’s chilly if you are. Wait a minute, I think I have some beef jerky in the truck, let me get it. Will he eat it? More than likely.

  5. Eric. Cars as you noted are constantly “refreshed” rather than completely overhauled to reduce costs. I’ve noted that this “refreshed” phrase placed next to a new car simply implies it has the latest “tech” features, Ipod compatible? the engines and drive train remain the same. look at the recently rebuilt Tundra. Yup….under the hood it was not touched yet Toyota claims its 100% rebuilt. I also agree cars are intentionally built with preset lifespans. Try rebuilding an aluminum block engine or an auto tranny and cry at the ridiculous fees if at all possible. Everything today is built disposable.


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