More Reliable Cars

The most recent survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that five-year-old vehicles had about one-third fewer problems than the five-year-old vehicles we studied in April 2005. In fact, owners of about two-thirds of those vehicles reported no problems. And serious repairs, such as engine or transmission replacement, were quite rare. (p.15, June ’10, Consumer Reports)

Car problem rates falling 1/3 in five years is change you might not notice, but if you think about it, its a pretty big deal.  Most people are surprised to hear that the world economy doubles roughly every fifteen years; when they think back fifteen years, the world doesn’t seem that different.   Besides a few big changes, most things seem pretty similar. But this is illusory – most change happens behind the scenes. In fact, one of the reasons why change can be so fast is that most of it happens behind the scenes. If ordinary people had to notice and deal with more changes, we just couldn’t change this much.

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  • burger flipper

    well, I’d sure love it if the next doubling yields the possibility of a middle class existence on a single average income again.

    crazy amidst this exponentially blossoming eden we seem headed for dire straits with entitlements, defaulting pension funds, and the like.

    get cracking on those ems, autobots, and Japanese sex droids
    chop. chop!

    • Metaqualia

      Seems to me a better metric for meaningful growth would be a combination of 3 factors: how happy, how healthy and how secure we are. Not whether we can make a bobble run for twice as long without breaking.

      In terms of happiness we’re not doing well, health wise we’re not doing well and there’s good reason to believe we have a non-negliable chance of going extinct within 100 years.

      Where’s the beef?

    • FRS

      Which middle class income? From the 1950s or the 2000s?

      • burger flipper

        lifestyle. not income.

        decent house with access to a good school system, healthcare (set-the-bones and antibiotics variety, not the shyte RH disparages), decent transportation and food.

        not to be had in most parts of the country on a single average income.

        I understand by some measures the low-rent apartment with speedy internet, Netflix, cable, DVR, etc which can be had on that income could be considered beter.

        But for family formation, it’s crap.

  • I think we live in an era where one has to be a bad faith observer to be suprised that the world economy doubles every 15 years. Too many of us were alive before the world wide web and pda cell phones.

    I think the improving web and cell phones makes it clearer to the masses how quickly global wealth and technological ability is increasing.

  • It cannot be a big deal that car problem rates have fallen by 1/3 in 5 years, else the average person would have noticed and spontaneously remarked on it — maybe it would even show up in popular culture, like TV characters comparing the death-traps of 5 years ago to the road-worthy machines of today.

    The reason is diminishing marginal returns. Most of the truly great gains in car safety came at the beginning — you would’ve been crazy to drive the first cars, then 5 years later they’re not so dangerous. By 2005, there isn’t a whole lot safer that you can make them on an absolute scale.

    As a result, people don’t derive as much utility from each successive safety improvement. I’m sure they were joyous with cars from 1950 compared to 1930. Now the differences are so trivial that they mean little to people’s utility.

  • Also, the reason that most people don’t perceive the so-called doubling of the economy as a great thing is because the greater variety and cheapness of doo-dads doesn’t matter to anyone but a gadget-worshiper. And again, diminishing marginal returns — an iPod isn’t that much cooler than a Walkman, to the average person.

    Someone already mentioned the cost of housing, which matters a lot more to people’s well-being than the cost of computers. There has also been a reversal in nutrition starting in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when the government and experts scared everyone away from animal products and back into a starving peasant diet of grains, starches, and sugars.

    When people look around and see all the effects of the obesity epidemic (misleadingly called — actually all symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome), they can quickly tell that we’re a lot less healthy than we used to be.

    Availability of food may be doubling in however many years, but food is not a commodity. If meat and dairy consumption are plummeting while grain, starch, and sugar consumption is skyrocketing, that’s not growth but regression back to peasant norms.

    • 1970s or early 1980s, when the government and experts scared everyone away from animal products and back into a starving peasant diet of grains, starches, and sugars.

      Uh…what? Corn is the top crop for subsidy payments, and much of that goes to feed livestock.

      • You aren’t denying my claim that people eat more grains, starches, sugars, and fruits / vegetables, and less beef, eggs, and dairy. (Food availability data show this, but you shouldn’t need to consult the numbers because the change is so huge and obvious.)

        Keep your eye on the ball kid.

  • Doug S.

    World population also grows very fast. What does the world GDP per capita look like?

    • kevin

      According to google public data, world gross product per capita doubled from 1994 to 2008. (~$4700 to ~$9200). Yes that is inflation adjusted. Thats about 15 years.

  • cournot

    The big changes are in the lives of the world’s poor. In China and India alone, the improvements for the bottom half in terms of access to food, clothing, and basic medicine have been very substantial over the last quarter century. In dollar terms they may not seem that big. In utility adjusted terms, going from a bowl of rice a day to two bowls of rice a day with an easier time buying the occasional aspirin or antibiotic is a vastly greater change than going from a rundown Chevy to a new Lexus.

    • Roko

      Didn’t see this until I posted mine. But as you can see from my comment below, I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Roko

    Note though that utility in reduced car-breakdowns is not linear.

    A lot of the “progress” that modern economic society gives us just gets nullified by the fact that humans habituate to material comfort, and that most of the variance in the utility function of a human above the level of material comfort of second world countries (Portugal, Croatia, eastern Europe etc) is in either genetic happiness set-points or zero-sum status.

    So until the economy can be directed at optimizing utility instead of world product, all this stuff is irrelevant.

    • Roko

      Forgot to add: a lot of variance in utility is in the general culture of a place. E.g. Happiness in Latin America is vastly larger than in Russia, despite equal GDP per capita. In Latin America they are poor but they know how to have a good time, obviously. And this gets them almost to the top of the happiness charts. See, e.g. this chart, with Colombia beating Austria, Germany, Japan, France in happiness but trailing by a factor of 4 (!) in income per capita.

  • ad

    Most people are surprised to hear that the world economy doubles roughly every fifteen years; when they think back fifteen years, the world doesn’t seem that different.

    That is because most of the changes have happened in places like China, and you are thinking about “most people in America”.

  • Indy

    Too much aggregation and abstraction. One must provide more granularity than mere “change” in general, and talk about “improvements in consumer items to include quality, choice, availability, price, etc..”

    Change in terms of major shifts in life patterns – those can create difficulty in terms of adjustment and adaptability. But progress in consumer goods? That’s readily assimilated. Increased purchasing power of the modal household income? That’s welcomed eagerly, if not universally expected to the point of entitlement in some quarters of the world.

    And it’s asymmetric. Dramatic and rapid improvements are instantly absorbed, but stagnation is irritating, and decline is immensely irritating – even though it is less “change” than restoration of the (presumptively familiar) status quo ante.

  • I was going to write a comment, but it ended up turning into Progress, extra time, efficiency, and consumer goods. But that started because I remembered that John Scalzi recently wrote:

    You have to get to about 1997 before there’s a car I would willingly get into these days. As opposed to today, when even the cheap boxy cars meant for first-time buyers have decent mileage, will protect you if you’re hit by a semi, and have more gizmos and better living conditions than my first couple of apartments.

    • Your blog is a gem. You should put posts like that Progress one and ones like this random selection:

      into a separate blog where they’re not buried by your more mundane posts.

      • Thanks for the compliment. I’m not sure how I’d separate the more mundane from the “other” posts, although I’ve thought about doing something like what Paul Graham does and having a list of “essays” that are more complete and “posts” that are shorter.

  • Yes, but it was really the introduction of flying cars in 2006 that made such a vast improvement in our lives.

    By the way, my 93-year-old father was employed by a consulting company working for a flying car company in 1938. They ended up building about 20 three-wheeled flying cars before the government declared them unsafe, at which point they sold the remaining stock to Japan.

  • Nick

    This reminds me of the power series approximation to the exponential function: In any neighborhood of where you are, exponential growth looks approximately linear, i.e., exp(t+h) ~ exp(t){1+h}.

  • “In any neighborhood of where you are, exponential growth looks approximately linear”

    “Any”? Should be: in some sufficiently small neighborhood that the 2nd-order and higher terms are negligible. Maybe you wouldn’t notice exponential growth in standard-of-living on a 6-month or 1-year scale, looking that distance forward and backward from a point in time, perceiving the change to be merely linear.

    But if things are supposed to be so much greater today than in say 1987 or 1997, the linear approximation breaks down. That’s too much time; if change really were exponential, we’d notice it for sure. Like prevalence of cell phones or the adoption of DVDs. Everyone who was an adolescent or older before and after the switch noticed how rapidly the new things took over.

    No one says that about standard-of-living or feeling of security, though, so whatever changes that have occurred weren’t that big to the mind of human beings.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    Most cars these days are well-built. We are living in science-fiction land these days with regards to automobiles, compared to 30 years ago when stalled cars with over-boiling radiators were a common sight on highways during holiday travel. The next step in automotive technology will be the emergence and domination of diesel-hybrids over the next 20 years. These will be as reliable as current cars and will offer 40-50 MPG fuel efficiency.

    The doubling of the global economy every 15 years might not be so noticeable in the U.S. where things do not look that much different than in 1995. However, the change in places like Shanghai and Guangdong are far more significant. Mexico is much less poor today than it was in 1985.

    • I’m not sure about the diesel hybrid prediction (diesel is actually kind of scarce right now, which is why it is priced higher than even premium unleaded), but I take the spirit of your post to heart. There are automotive technologies that are going to increase mileage greatly, without killing performance.

      Another greatly improving automotive measure that you may not know about is horsepower. Like quality, horsepower has increased by about 1/3 on average over the last 5 years. Automakers now sell midsize sedans with 4 cylinder engines that have more horsepower than the V6 engines of as little as 5 years ago.

      People decry the fact that CAFE standards have not increased in some time (before Obama increased them recently), but few realize that automotive manufacturers have been exceeding the standards, even as they have been increasing horsepower.

      Hybrids will become standard equipment in the near future, as will gasoline direct injection, 8 or 9 speed transmissions, and a technology called Homogenous Charge Compression Ignition, which will essentially make gasoline engines run like diesels, greatly increasing mileage under some driving conditions. Engines will get smaller, but with the use of turbochargers, will make more horsepower. They will use ethanol in a smaller, separate tank to increase performance while getting much better mileage.

      There is nothing revolutionary here. This is the simple consequence of a 1% improvement in efficiency per year, or something on that order.

  • Also, have you seen the new Hyndai Sonata? Even bargain basement Hyundai is putting a lot more thought into styling and design. It’s not the 1950s again… yet. But it seems like cars are a lot cooler than they were, definately 10 years ago, maybe even 5 years ago.

    I parked next to a Sonata yesterday. I’d go so far as to say it was sexy. Crazy, isn’t it?

  • gaz

    Many of the Mercedes OM617 diesel engines from the 1970’s /80’s have done more than 500,000 miles.

    If we could build cars 40 years ago that did 500,000 miles Then how come cars of today only go between 100,000 to 200,000 miles.

    I don’t believe that today’s cars are getting more reliable.

    I believe that the car companies are actually designing the cars to fail somewhere between 100,000 to 200,000 miles because they want a fast turnover of business.