Why are Cars Becoming Less Reliable?

What if I told you that new cars coming off the lot are less reliable than ever before? I know it might sound crazy; after all, a popular excuse for buying a brand new car instead of a slightly used car is the idea that “I just need something reliable. I don’t have time to deal with anything breaking.”

Well, unfortunately, the folks over at J.D. Power have dug up some rather alarming data in their 2022 Initial Quality Study, which shows new-vehicle problems at an all-time high, and even more alarming is that the vehicles without an internal combustion engine, the ones that have been praised for being more reliable, are actually the least reliable of them all.


Before we get deep into this, I want to preface the whole article by saying that the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study is not perfect and is, in fact, flawed. What I mean by this is that the year-by-year changes as far as what company is ranked where on the Initial Quality Study can vary widely.

It’s not uncommon to see an automotive manufacturer, say, Ford, GM, or Porsche, for example, to fall multiple places year over year, even while their products stay literally the same other very, very minor changes that the average buyer might not even notice.

So, is this proof that year-by-year reliability can change for the same product, or is the possibility the result of limited data is based on potentially flawed user input? The point I’m trying to make here is that boasting that a specific manufacturer ranks well in the initial quality survey means very little. In fact, I’d argue that it means nothing.

That being said, just because the year-to-year data by the manufacturer can change drastically, something that doesn’t change drastically is the year-to-year data including all cars from all manufacturers, which is actually where we see the new and startling trend of vehicles as a whole from all manufacturers, decreasing in reliability.

The 2021 to 2022 Data

And again, this is based on the 2022 reports, which show an 11% increase in problems experienced per 100 vehicles, or PP100 for short, which was the biggest increase ever seen in the 36-year history of this report.

To determine the PP100 score for each brand, they’ve surveyed over 80k owners and anyone leasing a new model-year 2022 vehicle, and they ask them 223 questions that fall into nine categories, which include infotainment features, controls and displays, exterior, driving assistance, interior, powertrain, seats, driving experience, and climate control.

Armed with the knowledge of how this is all ranked, we can look at the average PP100 score across all automotive manufacturers, which was 180 compared to 2021’s 162 score. Remember, higher is worse.

That being said, the initial quality score is not necessarily due to the manufacturing quality of vehicles. Correlation is not causation. However, a lower score is more than likely a result of excessively complex vehicle technology, and many users quite literally not knowing how to use their vehicle’s complex systems and then assuming they’re broken because they can’t figure it out.

Complex Systems

And I don’t mean that in any sort of condescending way. New cars are genuinely complex as hell and fully understanding how to utilize everything is often really hard. That’s partially why things like Apple Carplay have become so popular, as each company has a different infotainment system that is complex in its own way.

And that’s not just my opinion. Quote “Automakers continue to launch vehicles that are more and more technologically complex in an era in which there have been many shortages of critical components to support them,” said David Amodeo, director of global automotive at J.D. Power. He also noted the microchip shortage from 2020 is contributing to lower scores, as it has forced automakers to build vehicles without some desirable features.

Could it be Intentional?

But that all begs the question, are automotive manufacturers doing this on purpose? Could they potentially make their cars less reliable on purpose? I know it might sound crazy, but when you consider the numbers, it’s a plausible theory. Just consider the fact that for many dealerships, “service and parts” accounts for upwards of 50% of their gross profits. Not new cars, not used cars, repairs and service.

But of course, the automotive manufacturer isn’t necessarily benefiting from those repairs, as those profits go to the dealership rather than the automaker directly, but you can still see the correlation I’m pointing to.

If dealerships massively rely on repairs as part of their business model, what would the incentive be to sell reliable cars that never come in for service? It’s just something to consider.

Why Add Complexity?

And that all begs the question, why are new cars becoming excessively complicated for seemingly no reason? And the answer varies greatly depending on who you ask, but it effectively all comes down to attempting to make their product superior to a competitor’s product, and part of that involves marketing all the neat features it has that no one else has.

But, the truth is that many of those features are effectively gimmicks, as many people never even use those features, and many new car buyers are simply looking for something reliable and comfortable to get from point A to point B.

So my point is that these cars could possibly be becoming more complicated as a result of needing features and gimmicks to market as a way to make their product appear superior, and ultimately it’s done in the hopes of generating sales.

Electric Cars Scoring the Worst

And that also carries heavily into the electric car space, where part of the marketing for many electric cars is that they’re essentially the smart version of a car. So think back to before smartphones took over, electric cars are being marketed as the same, and part of that involves crazy infotainment systems and goofy bits of innovations, which ironically translates into significantly worse Initial Quality Study scores.

Case and point, Telsa is near the bottom of the chart, and Polestar literally is at the bottom of the chart, but to be fair, both scores are considered “ineligible for ranking” as the data is significantly more limited than other brands, which ultimately means the data pool isn’t big enough to have a completely accurate score.

With that in mind, though, it’s pretty funny seeing electric cars near the bottom of this score, as you’d think the complete lack of an internal combustion engine would eliminate most issues, but those issues are then made back and then some with excessively complicated infotainment systems and features.

What’s the Truth?

So, where’s the truth in all of this? If 2022 showed the Initial Quality Study being lower than ever across the board, are cars getting less reliable? Well, yes and no.

As I explained earlier, this study doesn’t exactly equal vehicle reliability because many of the reports are subjective and submitted by vehicle owners, with many of the reports including issues with infotainment systems and the vehicle owner not knowing how to use it properly.

That being said, vehicles are becoming excessively complicated as a means of having features and gimmicks to market the vehicle, with companies like Tesla and Polestar struggling the worst, even though they’re electric and don’t have an internal combustion engine that can break.

So what do you guys think? Are cars less reliable than ever before, or are they just becoming so complicated that no one can figure out how to use every little feature? Let me know in the comments below!

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