NWautos: Seattle's local source for new and used autos


November 18, 2012 1:00 AM

Auto appreciation: The amazing qualities of our modern vehicles


Details such as materials testing and near-perfect assembly are making modern autos more reliable and better looking. Here, Ford employees assemble a C-Max hybrid. (Ford)

You'll probably use a computer, washing machine, copier or smartphone today. But nothing is more complex and amazing than the modern automobile. It's easy to take its brilliance and durability for granted. They're so reliable these days, they seldom call attention to themselves.

Your car is truly awesome. Here's why.

Proper punishment

Modern cars easily go 100,000 miles with only preventative maintenance, and maybe two or three times that before they're scrapped.

Think about what happens during a simple 100-mile drive: there are millions of explosions, ten of thousands of pounds of force and extreme heat generated by friction. Cars shrug that off. That's because automakers slam prototypes into deep potholes and torture engines past redline for days to prove their reliability.

The real world is a harsh one, and manufacturers feel the heat … and the cold. Test vehicles pull loaded trailers in Death Valley to make sure they don't overheat. Winter facilities and test chambers reveal how fluids respond, how well heaters work and whether the power steering functions at sub-zero temperatures. Vehicles are driven repeatedly through slush fields to build hundreds of pounds of ice on the undercarriage to see how driving dynamics are affected.

Four-season engineering

Most manufacturers insist that their cars perform flawlessly in temperatures ranging from minus 40 to 140 degrees. Remember, a car bought in Seattle can end up in frigid North Dakota or searing Arizona. Breakdowns in severe weather aren't just inconvenient, they put people in danger.

Plastic and metal contract and expand at different rates, causing buckling, squeaks and rattles to happen. Theoretically, a poorly designed door can expand enough on a hot day to prevent it from opening. Engineers painstakingly select materials to eliminate that threat, even studying how materials smell at temperature extremes and rejecting odiferous offenders.

Processing power

Who would leave a computer out in the sun, the rain or a dust storm? Your car is stuffed with processors and software that are nearly impervious to the abuse of weather, vibration or hackers.

Up to 70 microprocessors manage sophisticated electronic stability controls, entertain your kids in the back seat and meter out gasoline at the molecular level. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers reports that the Mercedes-Benz S-Class COMAND navigation and radio system alone has 20 million lines of code — three times the amount found in a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Quality construction

Walk up to your vehicle and admire the perfect seams. Near-flawless construction is now the rule, not the exception. The level of craftsmanship is staggering, even on budget cars. There are thousands of parts in an automobile and, both inside and out, they come together with a fit and finish that's tight and flush. That remains even after years of expansion and contraction due to temperature changes and vibration.

Tread on me

The next time you're in a swimming pool, sweep your open hand over the surface of the water and notice how it hydroplanes. Wonder why your tires don't do the same at highway speed on rainy days? Computer modeling has produced tread patterns that direct water out from under the tire, sort of like a water pump. And when you nail a big pothole at more than 30 mph, marvel at how the tire survives the impact. You wouldn't.

Clean machine

New cars are infinitely cleaner than they were 50 years ago. Drive a 2010 automobile 100 miles, and it produces the same amount of nitrous oxide a 1960s car belched in one mile. Carbon monoxide has been reduced by more than 80 percent, and particulate matter has been slashed to nearly nothing. It's another reason why you can breathe easier — and why your car is awesome.