Tech trends in vehicle manufacturing put Kenya in a fix

Saturday March 18 2017

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You probably do not know what a UAZ is, but you’ve almost certainly seen one.  At the movies.

UAZ is the brand name of those little Russian (Eastern Bloc, Warsaw Pact) 4WD military vehicles that star in every cold-war spy film, counterpoint to the other side’s Jeep. The UAZ, little changed in many decades, is also the ubiquitous workhorse of farmers and foresters in slightly out-of-the-way places, like Siberia.  It is basic, crude, ugly, noisy, uncomfortable,  slow, and painfully awkward to steer. But it’s also ready for almost any task almost anywhere and, perhaps above all, it is eminently fixable. The UAZ’s serviceability is not just a spin-off of its simplicity (e.g the electrical circuits are so few it has only three fuses). Fixer-friendliness is a purposeful priority of its design… because it needs to be. Whether in the heat of battle or at minus 40 on a rural track between Finland and Alaska, tools and parts are scarce, workshops don’t exist, and time is limited by gunfire or frostbite. You have to get the car going again, quickly. Or die. That defines, very clearly, what fixability requires. Everything must be visible, reachable, removeable, repairable and replaceable with few tools and even less skill. Even for people wearing woolly mittens during a blizzard, the UAZ ticks those boxes. Modern cars do not. Indeed, both despite and because of wonderful advances in technology, materials, diagnostics, and quality control (which bring clear improvements in performance, economy, safety and function) modern design doesn’t just neglect fixability – it actively undermines it!  That’s not because fix-friendly means going back to basics. Manufacturers are perfectly capable of making the most sophisticated vehicles even more fixable than the old stuff.   Marketing, not technology, is driving the global trend towards low maintenance and even no maintenance. It is neither difficult nor expensive to fit a grease nipple or to close an electronics housing with screws instead of glue. Yet most components are sealed-for-life, and if they go wrong they must be replaced. And even parts which are regular service items are buried under birds’ nests of gismos, and require either specialist tools or a double-jointed squirrel to get at them. That is a rational strategy in markets where labour is more expensive than parts; where roads are smooth, service systems are formal and sophisticated, roadworthiness standards are stringent, and cars are replaced well within their intended design life. In markets like Kenya, where the very opposite of all those conditions prevail, it is an anomaly. We use our cars in ways and conditions that would make even a Cossack cringe, and what Europe and Japan would regard as “expired scrap” we call “nearly new”. This and the no-fix ethos expose us to multiple jeopardies – it’s harder to keep a modern vehicle in good condition after use in dust and mud and rocks, and the replacement parts that become more necessary are often scrap imports or cut-price and cut-quality brands that further erode durability. And even when owners are diligent about service schedules, and can afford to replace with genuine parts, wherever components are in hard-to-reach places there is a danger that they will not be checked or will be incorrectly fitted. Sub-standard parts, failure to check, and clumsy fitting are almost certainly the primary cause of most breakdowns.