Are failed electronics no longer a vehicle’s death sentence?
We previously discussed the concept of modern cars aging as gracefully as older vehicles, with a light patina on the metal body and trim. But the comments from the Hagerty community, about the increasingly complex electronic systems in modern cars, inspired this article. Knowing that new electronics eventually become out of the question, and used parts can be a risky endeavor, reaction from commenters was swift and conclusive:
@Paul: You can refinish peeling paint. There’s nothing you can do when the computers start failing and all the wrecking yard parts dry up.
@Steve: Failed electronics will kill cars more quickly and often than patina or decomposing trim. It’s happened to me on a couple of ’90s vehicles. On the other hand, my ’60s cars are very likely to continue looking great and operating properly well into the future. Simple is good.
@smtguy: Completely agree with you, Steve. Automotive electronics are slapped together as inexpensively as possible. They then have to endure the harsh environment of a car with temperature swings that can be in excess of 100 degrees, to say nothing about vibration, and obsolescence.
@GP: Every car I have owned from the late ’90s on has had its computer either outright die or malfunction to the point the car was unusable. Used replacement computers are no help because all too often they are coded to the original VIN, and no one is going to pay $2000 and up to buy a new computer for a Pontiac Aztek or Ford Flex that already looks like trash.
All valid points, but what’s being overlooked here is the fact that electronics can be rebuilt, be it with new internals, repaired circuits, or both. Rebuilding addresses the design flaws over time, often using OEM-grade (or better, in my experience) components for the circuit boards, and offering a warranty on the work.
Now that we know many of these items are not black boxes with mysterious components, the next issue to resolve is to find the person or company who can rebuild the component you need. Sometimes there’s a vendor on your favorite forum that has a good reputation with owners of your vehicle. (The same applies to Facebook Groups for your cars, and vendors on eBay.) Often doing a Google Near Me search gets you the service provider of your dreams, especially when you widen your search parameters to businesses outside of driving range.
History is littered with cases of consolidation of industries, and I’ve always wondered if someone was going to do the same for the automotive electronics space. Someone needs to scale up in order to carry the array of parts and also feature a deep roster of technicians to meet the demands of the ever-increasing needs of depreciated automobiles.
@JW: I think the biggest issue we will see in present cars as they age is the breakdown of their snazzy screens and infotainment systems. Their complexity almost guarantees they won’t be functional in 30–40 years. And it won’t be a matter of just replacing or rebuilding your broken speedo or tach.
Maybe there will be companies that can rebuild them, but will the proper chips and other electronics be available?
Not maybe, definitely. Even the buggy Cadillac CUE system can be repaired for under $300 with free round-trip shipping and a one- or two-day turnaround. Just remove the screen (or pay a mechanic), ship it to an electronics repair vendor, and you’ll be back in business in about a week.
That’s where a company called UpFix comes into play. The folks there have been repairing and reprogramming computer modules since 2006. In those early days, they focused on resetting airbag modules that freeze up after a collision, and their customer base of collision centers proved the business model had merit. But UpFix’s management noticed more and more electrical gremlins in the automotive landscape, so the model adapted to the market’s need, encompassing solutions to more diverse problems: What started out as resetting software on airbag modules became actual hardware repairs.
I spoke with Ernest Martynyuk, UpFix’s auto electronics division leader, about his company’s unique value proposition. If you’re like me, you’ve had components rebuilt by local Mom & Pop shops in the past, and they operate in less-than-ideal workspaces with limited staff and salty customer service. They get the job done, but some are merely a necessary evil to keep your car on the road. Martynyuk thinks his company does things differently, and UpFix’s facility suggests he’s operating with the professionalism of an OEM parts provider.
UpFix puts more more time into testing parts, Martynyuk says, than its smaller-scale competition. Further, it has an enviable stash of individual repair components, can reprogram a variety of applications, and possesses more specialty tools. But humans fix electronics, and UpFix also has more staff than a typical Mom & Pop. Even better, someone on the team frequently updates the website to ensure would-be customers understand what items they can fix, without needing to call or send an awkward email. (Many smaller operations still use websites that are more at home on a GeoCities domain.)
The more you poke around UpFix’s website, the more you realize they might be likely/willing to repair old parts from the 1990s OBD-II era, and even from older OBD-I vehicles. Martynyuk encourages this, as Upfix is willing and has a track record of repairing older modules from modern classics. Like other shops, they’ve repaired the usual pixelated problems from BMW displays of the 1990s, but have also mastered the more obscure. Consider the dashboard power supply of the Z31-generation Nissan 300ZX, and the failing gauge clusters of the oft-overlooked Suzuki XL-7. If you don’t find your vehicle in the website’s pull-down menus, Martynyuk encourages you to submit a repair request form.
It’s clear from our conversation that Martynyuk has a genuine curiosity and willingness to help owners of modern classics, and he’s in a position to ensure UpFix can work on oddball stuff for the likes of the Hagerty community. Although some of his smaller-scale competitors can say the same, they often focus on a single vehicle or a particular marque.
A company like UpFix is precisely what we classic car enthusiasts need, because it is indeed getting harder and harder to find someone to work on these old circuit boards, much less do it in a facility this impressive. The days of a majority of vehicles being made by three Detroit automakers are long gone; our reality is one of disparate global automakers using unique parts in a unique fashion. Even worse, all that technology was deemed antiquated by their parent companies decades ago.
UpFix is still growing into its large facility, hiring more technicians, stocking more components, and adding more workstations. Perhaps with this extra capacity comes an added willingness to repair a more diverse grouping of electronic modules. Martynyuk seems willing to take a shot at anything, so perhaps we have an alternative to overpriced service departments at new car dealerships. And maybe we finally have a safer bet than a junkyard or eBay listing for a used electronic component of questionable condition. That alone might be cause for celebration.