In the last few years, right to repair has been in the news and even in legislatures. The idea is that instead of having to ask a manufacturer for permission to repair or modify a product you already bought, you’d have a legal right to do so by default, including buying parts, getting access to computer systems, etc. This can be tough for auto manufacturers and dealers who would like to be the only ones who can repair their products (and charge heaps of money to do so).
But they can’t admit that they’re trying to make a cash grab, so they have to use scare tactics. Unauthorized repair, either by the customer themselves or an independent repair shop, could potentially be done wrong. Or worse, independent repairs are supposedly a menace to society at large (due to e-bike fires). Other bogeyman scenarios, like hackers getting into your car’s computer, emissions tampering, and losing access to EV charging networks are all used to frighten people into going to the manufacturer and opposing laws that would allow people to do otherwise.
Despite the FUD from automakers and other manufacturers, right to repair laws are still being passed and even expanded. Sometimes manufacturers try to sue states in court, but it seems obvious that right to repair is a largely losing battle for them.
Many people in the public would trust the manufacturer to repair things more, but many more people seem to be aware of the benefits. Not only does right to repair save owners money, but it also gives people more control and transparency over the repair process. Even more importantly, the ability to economically repair broken things reduces the need for manufacturing replacements, eliminating the unnecessary emissions associated with that.
But, that’s not in the financial interest of manufacturers. If broken items can’t be repaired at any cost, then people are going to need to buy another one. So, there’s a financial incentive to manufacture and sell products that are harder or impossible to repair.
Toyota Shows That “Gigacasting” Is Spreading In The Auto Industry
At a recent Toyota event, large media outlets were invited to check out Toyota’s latest manufacturing methods in development. At the event, they showed off new “gigacasting” presses.
The idea of casting large pieces of a car’s body/frame instead of assembling them from hundreds of pieces isn’t new. Tesla’s already doing this with several models at some plants, and they’re looking to expand on it. Like Tesla, Toyota says that a one-piece cast piece can cut the build time for the vehicle’s structure nearly in half, save a lot of money, and enable higher factory outputs while spending less per unit. From the automaker’s perspective, it’s a good idea.
But, like all good ideas, there are often drawbacks. Being able to pour liquid metal into a mold, press down on it, and come out with a complete part is definitely faster and cheaper than taking a bunch of different metal parts and bonding or welding them together to make a piece that does the same things. But, cast metal is more porous and brittle than other types of metal, which is why only toy cars have been cast over the decades.
The challenges of casting such large pieces means that sometimes the piece comes out with cracks as the metal cools, or cracks later in the manufacturing process as the car is completed.
— Nizar Kamel (@Nizzysaurus) August 24, 2023
In the above example, the owner says that Tesla inspected the cracks to his cast frame pieces and that the company thinks it’s OK. When he pressed Tesla further, he says they claimed that engineers are confident that these cracks won’t make the vehicle unsafe either in normal operation or in a crash. But, as you can imagine, many people are skeptical of these claims.
But, the question of how these cast sections of vehicle frame/body can be repaired is an entirely separate challenge. BodyShopBusiness.com says, “Many aluminum and magnesium parts are cast and are likely broken in an accident. Repair of these parts is limited, so replacement is the most common choice.” However, Elon Musk claims that broken portions of a casted piece can be cut off and replaced with a bolt-on piece:
The crash absorption rails can be cut off & replaced with a bolted part for collision repair
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 7, 2020
Despite the risks that the car-buying public could be taking with cast frame pieces, several other manufacturers are considering adopting this manufacturing process. We’ll have to get more data from companies and later see actual crash repair results to see how it ends up panning out in the real world. Elon Musk may be right, but if he’s wrong, it probably won’t hurt Tesla.
Right To Repair Might Not Matter If There’s No Ability To Repair
If it turns out that vehicles are more susceptible to being totaled after an accident, it’s really not something that automakers are going to be hurt by. A few people who know anything about collision repair will care if this experiment goes badly, but the average person relies on the repair shop and their insurance to decide whether the vehicle can be repaired. The possibility of a totaled car isn’t something that most people even think about when making a purchase decision.
The number of cars being totaled would go up, and thus insurance premiums would go up, but not by enough to get people’s attention. So, few would even notice what happened.
With nobody else really feeling the hurt (except when replacement vehicles are hard to get), a less repairable vehicle ends up being a good thing for manufacturers. It means they’ll build and sell more of the vehicles to replace the ones that couldn’t be repaired, emissions and the environment be damned.
Another issue that would crop up is something that we’re already seeing happen in the industry: shoddy repairs. As cars rely more and more on engineered solutions to safety, seemingly small things done wrong in the repair process can make for huge differences in the safety of the car post-repair. For example, there was a 2013 crash made much more deadly by a roof that was glued on with an untested epoxy rather than welded.
Many independent shops and salvage car rebuilders, facing the prospect of their business drying up with cast cars, will probably find ways to make a car look like it was fixed without knowing whether the car has its original crash integrity. Cutting off part of a cast body structure and replacing it with bolted on steel could have unpredictable effects on the vehicle’s future crashworthiness, and without some well-studied and engineered repair methods, there’d be no way to know.
Hopefully auto manufacturers come up with good repair methods for the coming onslaught of crashed vehicles, including some crash test data to show that the repair would actually keep families safe, but that might reduce the number of new cars they could sell, so I’m not holding my breath.
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