Analyzing the Owners Manual

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Every car comes with a manual that describes the inner workings of the vehicle, but more importantly lays out the routine maintenance schedule. All drivers should at least review the manual, but the truth is that most end up stashing it in the glove compartment until something occurs they don’t understand.

One reason is that owners manuals for cars — much like any instruction guide — aren’t exactly written to be compelling. Unfortunately, the very nature of manuals often means people tend to put it away and forget it. Even as consumers have become more tech-savvy with smart phones and connected devices, a paper owners manual can often be all too complex.

“Vehicle owners manuals aren’t necessarily any easier today,” said Stephen Spivey, Mobility Program manager at international research firm Frost & Sullivan.

The downside is vehicles have become ever more complex, as well, and motorists really shouldn’t ignore some of the basic information in the manuals.

“There is more explanation needed to support the increased amount of electrical content in modern automobiles for active/passive safety systems — e.g. collision warning, lane departure warning, heads-up displays etc,” Spivey said. “To use and understand many of the features in telematics/infotainment systems and to recognize all of the indicators generated by the sensors and microprocessors in today’s cars, consumers require more details. Many OEMs are even storing the owners manual on the vehicle’s embedded SIM so drivers can access the information on the LCD display.”

Drivers shouldn’t think they know better than those who provided the information.

“Vehicle owners should understand the people who design and build their cars are in the best position to determine the recommended maintenance services and the appropriate intervals for those services,” said Michael Calkins, manager of Technical Services at AAA.

Changes and Opportunities

Those selling the vehicles should recommend that drivers read their owners manuals, but service shops can also encourage motorists to freshen up on the basics as a way to keep their vehicles in good order.

This is because, according to a report by AAA, motorists tend to ignore some of the maintenance schedules listed in the manuals. One AAA survey found 88 percent of repair shops reported motorists frequently skipped brake fluid services, while 82 percent found drivers ignored battery checks and 81 percent noted transmission fluid maintenance was overlooked.

According to AAA, it is the automakers, which are the ones that actually design and build the cars, that are in the best position to accurately determine a vehicle’s maintenance needs. Therefore, it is also the automakers that need to set the standards for any parts and fluids requiring service.

“This makes it very important for technicians to be aware of and follow automakers’ recommendations in these areas,” Calkins said. “Naturally, it does not hurt a vehicle to ‘over maintain’ it by performing services more frequently than recommended — although one’s wallet may feel additional pain, and the extra care is likely to provide minimal, if any, real-world benefit.”

A key point in many manuals is there is no longer a “standard” maintenance schedule for all vehicles — and based on driving conditions some vehicles may need to be serviced more often. Shops should encourage drivers to read up, and not just wait for warning indicators in their vehicles to alert them that service is needed.

“While most cars today have electronic maintenance reminder systems, those systems tend to focus primarily on oil change intervals,” Calkins said. “Other services and inspections are also required at certain time or mileage intervals. Failure to perform these services can affect vehicle operation, fuel economy and/or the service life of various components. All of the recommended services and the suggested intervals can be found in the vehicle owners manual or maintenance booklet.”

This isn’t to say that routine maintenance schedules are completely a thing of the past, and motorists should still be encouraged to be proactive about maintenance to extend the life of their vehicles.

“Not too much has changed for routine maintenance,” Spivey said. “Oil change intervals can be extended for cars running on synthetic lubricants or advanced filter media from every 5,000 miles to once a year. Wiper blades, tires, brakes and batteries have not changed significantly. As mechanical parts are replaced with electrical systems, the service life of most under-the-hood components has become longer. Consumers rely on multi-point inspections from their service providers to let them know when they need routine maintenance.”

Drivers shouldn’t think they know better than those who provided the information.

Ensuring that those electrical systems are working correctly is something motorists should also monitor, and shops could see this as a future service opportunity, in part because these are helping keep vehicles rolling longer.

“Advances in engine technology and electrification of mechanical systems are primarily responsible for the longer service life of today’s automobiles,” Spivey said.

In addition, AAA has noted when it comes to fluids, using products that meet automakers’ specifications is especially critical, as the wrong product can lead to less than optimal operation, accelerated wear and even premature failure of certain components or systems.

“It is very important that technicians are up-to-date and work in accordance with the latest maintenance and fluid recommendations,” Calkin said.

Technicians should stay on top of changes through industry publications, bulletins from fluid and part suppliers, training seminars and other educational resources. In addition, there are industry groups that can help direct techs to the information they need.

“As OEM recommendations in owners’ manuals from model to model and year to year change, service and repair shop professionals know the importance of staying abreast of these changes,” said Rich White, Car Care Council executive director.

Time Vs. Mileage

There are still cases, however, where some maintenance should be addressed at intervals of time and/or mileage, and this is also where consulting the latest changes in the manuals is highly recommended.

“A common example of a time-based service is an oil change at least once a year, even if the car hasn’t been driven enough for the maintenance reminder light to come on,” Calkin said. “Another is brake fluid replacement, required by many automakers every two years.”

A common example of a mileage-based service is timing belt replacement. When necessary, this service is generally recommended at somewhere between 60,000 and 120,000 miles.

“Typical inspections that are often part of scheduled maintenance services include fluid levels, brake wear, tire condition and more,” Calkin said. “This is why it is important car owners read the owner’s manual or maintenance booklet for their vehicle and familiarize themselves with what work is required and when. This can help them budget properly for vehicle maintenance, make sure all required work is done, and avoid having unnecessary work performed.”

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