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Does more tech in cars mean more breakdowns?

Cars have more technology these days. It turns out some of it comes back to bite you and can even leave you stranded. AAA says electronic keyless ignitions are a special challenge that can lead to dead (car) batteries — especially for people with secure garages who leave the remotes in the car at night so they aren’t misplaced.

A summer report from AAA said they rescued a record 32 million drivers in 2015, a 10% increase over 2014’s 29 million calls for help. Vehicle miles traveled in the US increased only 3% from 2014 (2.98 trillion miles) to 2015 (3.06 trillion miles).

AAA new car breakdowns graphic

According to the auto club, newer cars — cars less than five years old — have a disproportionately high number of tire, key, and “fuel-related” issues (meaning the tank goes empty). Cars six to 10 years old are more likely to have battery problems, since batteries typically last three to five years. With these newer cars, a fifth of service calls ends with a tow to the shop.

Overall, the top three roadside service requests remain dead batteries, flat tires, and vehicle lockouts. This last one despite some (not all) remote keys that won’t let you lock the car and walk away unless the key is outside the car.

AAA-2008_CES_Bi-Directional Key FobWhen a remote key is left in the car, it may communicate with the vehicle. The car may keep more electronic modules from going to sleep or suspend mode. This is especially the case when the key is left in the car overnight, accidentally or by design so it doesn’t get lost.

AAA recommends changing the key fob battery on the suggested cycle, rather than trying to stretch your luck.

Telematics systems can also be a battery drain. They may need to stay semi-active in order to respond to a find-my-car command.

According to Cliff Ruud, managing director of automotive solutions for AAA, “Despite advanced warning systems [low-fuel lights and miles-to-empty displays], more than half a million drivers ran out of gas last year.”

Low-profile tires are more susceptible to damage, including wheel breakage and/or tire blow-outs where the tire is destroyed. Even a run-flat tire won’t run if a pothole or road debris destroys the sidewall, usually a result of the short sidewall, meaning a tire aspect ratio of 50 or less. AAA recommends drivers with run-flats or inflator kits should consider buying a spare tire. (But first, check to make sure there’s room set aside in the trunk for for a full-size spare. It may have appropriated for other uses.)

High-tech driver assists don’t appear to have an impact on AAA’s service calls. Even if there’s a failure of adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection, or lane departure warning, the car still runs. You can still get home if the head-up display fails.

As for the main question raised by AAA’s survey, the answer to whether tech makes cars more susceptible to failure is that most forms of new car tech don’t leave you stranded. If they fail, you keep driving and go see the dealer in a week or two. Or you give up and leave navigation or lane departure warning disabled.

According to AAA, the peak season for roadside assistance calls is summer with 8.3 million calls, followed by winter with 8.1 million calls, fall with 7.8 million calls, and spring with 7.7 million calls.

Monday is the most common day to call for roadside assistance, while Sunday is the least busy. Among other things, the car may have sat for 1-2 days in the driveway and a just-marginal battery on Friday evening is a dead battery Monday morning.

Drivers in the West made the most roadside assistance calls, followed by the South, Northeast, and Midwest.

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