I think I've paid almost $4,000 to repair my car in the past few months, considerably more than I would have said the car was worth. The trouble is that each time the last repair is "sunk cost," and I keep thinking this repair will be the last. This article makes me think it more likely that some of those mechanics were ripping me off:
A few years ago, an economics graduate student named Henry Schneider drove his dad’s old Subaru station wagon up to Montreal. He had heard about a Canadian consumer interest group that had done undercover investigations of auto-repair shops, and he wanted to try a more academic version of its experiment.
So when he arrived in Montreal, he handed the Subaru over to the mechanics working for the group, the Automobile Protection Association, for a complete inspection. They found that it had a small hole in its exhaust pipe, a blown taillight and several other relatively minor problems. Mr. Schneider took careful notes. But he also did something that no ordinary car owner would do. He asked the mechanics to show him how to mess up the car in a couple of serious but obvious ways.
They taught him how to loosen the battery cable (which can prevent a car from starting) and how to suck out coolant (which can leave an engine vulnerable to overheating). Armed with this knowledge, Mr. Schneider drove home to Connecticut and undertook a devilish little test...
At only 27 of the 40 garages did mechanics tell Mr. Schneider that he had a disconnected battery cable, the very problem to which he had pointed them by saying his car didn’t always start. Only 11 mentioned the low coolant, a problem that can ruin a car’s engine. Ten of the garages, meanwhile, recommended costly repairs that were plainly unnecessary, like replacing the starter motor or the battery. (Tellingly, his results were in line with what the Automobile Protection Association found when it performed its experiments in Canada.)
In all, only about 20 percent of the garages deserved a passing grade. “And that’s with a pretty low bar,” Mr. Schneider told me. “I’m even allowing them to have missed a blown taillight that should have been caught.”
This made me think of a probably harebrained but interesting possibility: could robots repair cars? Robots are the quintessential labor-saving technology, though they can also be used for operations resembling those of the human body but requiring strength or precision or consistency superior to what humans possess. In this case, though, the motive for using robots is different: they would be a way of solving the expert service problem. The robot would lack the human capacity for figuring out how clueless you are and how much it can get away with charging you. For that reason it might make sense to employ robots even if they were more expensive than their human counterparts. Suppose it costs $500 for a robot to repair your car, and only $200 for a human to perform the same repair, but 50% of the humans will cheat you and perform an unnecessary repair for $1000. You should go with the robot.
If robots were applied to auto repair, this might change auto manufacturing. Very likely, some autos would be much easier for robots to repair than others. Autos that could be repaired by robot would command premium prices in the market. Auto designers would soon start to standardize cars in ways that made it easier for robots to work with them. There would be "co-evolution" of autos and auto-repair robots.