This won’t be an anti-technology rant, though it could be mistaken for one. What I intend to do is give a little discredit where discredit is due.
I knew I had an electrical problem when my car almost didn’t start at the ATM. It seemed like it had been cranking slow, and the lights had been dim, then sure enough I got the dreaded rrrr… rrr… rr… sound when I tried to restart.
Back home I put it on a charger and the problem cleared up—for a while. But a healthy battery should get all the recharge it needs from the alternator. Was the alternator failing? Or the cable? Or the voltage regulator. Do cars still have them? Or maybe the computer? How do you tell for sure?
The local auto parts store has a free system check, so when the car slow-started again, that’s where I went. The lad behind the counter grabbed his electronic wonderbox and out to the parking lot we went. He attached the box’s clamps to the battery and in a moment rendered his diagnosis: bad battery. I realized that batteries are a huge profit center, and I wondered if the wonderbox defaults to “I’m Not Sure What the Problem Is but Please Buy a Battery Anyway.”
Even though I had my doubts about the wonderbox’s conclusion, I spent big and got a supersized AGM battery that looked like it belonged in a Kenworth. That restored my cranking speed, and again, all was well. For a while.
Not long after, during a visit to a nearby town, the car just clicked but the starter wouldn’t spin. Oh boy. I trailered it home, recharged my big, beefy battery, but the no-start condition persisted. For the starter to suddenly go inop when it had worked fine up to that point, it had to be starter failure, right?
With the car still on the trailer, I hauled to a rival auto parts store with an even better wonderbox that was said to analyze every electrical function and would definitely find the problem. The guy hooked up his new, improved son-of-wonderbox and let it do its thing. Yep, the guy said, there were plenty of amps getting to the starter, but it was not spinning. Diagnosis: bad starter.
I ordered a new one and took the car and the new starter to a shop that works on cars like mine, an older Jaguar sedan. Yes, I know they are a dark pit of baffling electrical problems, but I got it cheap. The shop installed the starter, but guess what? The car was still clicking but not starting. Oh, the joy.
The shop’s electrical guy was on it. After a couple of days, he discovered a terminal on the firewall full of corrosion. The corrosion acted as a check valve, preventing the battery from getting a full charge, and also blocking power from getting to the starter. One new cable, one new wiring harness, and one starter later, the old Jag was starting with ease and the volt gauge was swinging back to its rightful position between the 13 and 14 numbers on the dial.
The computerized wonderbox correctly diagnosed the problem zero percent of the time. I could have done as well with a dartboard, a Magic 8 Ball, or a corrosion-sniffing chicken. Let’s call this electronic guessing game the Digital Diagnostic Deficit Disorder.
I’d like to think that the electronic wonderbox correctly diagnoses problems sometimes, but while that remains a question mark in my experience, I do know that a man with a screwdriver, a box wrench, and some practical experience is the hero of this story. At this point, it’s just not possible to program a real mechanic’s judgment and intuition into a computer chip, and I doubt it ever will be.
There is a level of serviceability to our vintage, computer-free automobiles that ECM cars will never have. I’m glad my old 1966 428 Ford has no PC boards, ABS, ECM, or OBD. Instead, it responds to one of the greatest diagnostic devices the world has ever seen: a guy with a screwdriver. In the right hands, a screwdriver is a stethoscope, a dwell meter, a tension gauge, a starter cable, a magnet, or even a screwdriver. Try that with your wonderbox.
Remember that even the best computers are designed by man, fallible, primitive man. The created is not greater than its creator. Computers will always have a job, and for good reason, a man will always be their boss.