Why are auto parts more standardized.
June 16, 2010 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Why doesn't an auto manufacturer use more standardized body parts across the product line? I know many platforms share drivetrain components (Audi/VW etc), but wouldn't it be cheaper to extend the concept to the rest of the car? Or is it all just marketing and perceived product differentiation?

My conjecture is that this happens because a) the design process sets the standard, and b) its driven to increase model differentiation for marketing purposes, and c) companies know they make a large profit on proprietary spare parts.
For Example, I see no reason why all Hondas (Accord, Civic, Odessey, etc) can't use the same tail lights. Since the USDOT mandates the area of the light, Honda could certainly standardize the shape and still have strong design elements on the rest of the car. Similarly for headlights, side mirrors, handles, and many other trim pieces.
Would not this simplification of the supply chain offset any loss of profit in the repair channels?
I hope someone has a reply based on some industry background and more than one's own conjecture.
(All this prompted by the shock of a $1500 repair bill for a very minor fender bender.)
posted by TDIpod to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total)
If I remember correctly, in the 1970's AMC used the same front fenders for the Gremlin and Hornet. And I think Ford used pickup truck tail light lenses for the Pinto.
posted by Daddy-O at 9:26 AM on June 16, 2010

That would mean single sourcing the parts as well, which would result in larger supplier corporations, more union disputes, less flexibility, less seasonal variation, less competition, and possibly higher prices.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:27 AM on June 16, 2010

You've already got most of the answer -- marketing and product differentiation is the main driver.

But also consider the availability of parts in the supply chain -- the cars are not built to the same schedules, and arranging your supply chain to allow for this part sharing would add significant difficulty.

Finally, the cars do share an awful lot, in ways you don't really see unless you look hard. I was a little surprised to notice that the turn signal, wiper blade and cruise control stalks on my pissant family Camry were *identical* to the ones on a friend's upscale Lexus. I had expected to see these parts be custom-designed, considering they're right in the driver's face.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:27 AM on June 16, 2010

GM tried this in the 80s and earned the much derided nickname Oldsmobuick, which should have included Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Cadillac as well. Didn't work so well, although the thurough trouncing in quality that was dealt to GM by the upstart Japanese car makers probably helped.

As for me, if you want to sell me an accord with Civic parts on it, I'd be happy to pay civic money for it.

As for your repair bill, how much of the part cost is margin being made by the producer and supply chain? I'd guess the production cost of a tail light is less than $10. That fact that it's $200 suggests that the supply chain cost isn't the issue. With however many millions of Accords and Civics on the road, I doubt the efficiency gains of re-using exterior parts would be more than a fraction of a percent.
posted by desl at 9:30 AM on June 16, 2010

Lots do. The phrase auto reviewers tend to use is "raided the parts bin."

In more detail, here's a working example of why differentiation matters. Starting prices:

Audi A3: £15,775 (A3 1.6 3l dr)
Volkswagen Golf: £14,850 (Golf S 1.4l 3 dr)
Seat Leon - £13,975 (Leon S 1.6l 5 dr)

I'm pretty sure these all share the same floorpan, and many of the same engines in the range. But if you look at the difference between the Audi and the Seat it's an £1,800 difference for a similar car in a different brand.

The interesting thing is that Volkswagen don't offer a petrol Golf 1.6l in the UK except as a Bluemotion. Seat is cheaper and targeted at younger consumers. Audi is more prestige and targeted at older consumers. The Volkswagen range is primarily positioned for economy.

So even if they could use all the same engines there are good positioning reasons not to.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:43 AM on June 16, 2010

Best answer: Some vehicles such as the Land Rover Defender persist substantially unchanged in style for many years. Cars like this are in the minority, though, as car companies are ultimately in the business of selling to new-car buyers, and they find the commercial advantage of regularly releasing visibly new cars outweighs the commercial advantage of saving money by keeping designs the same.

All this prompted by the shock of a $1500 repair bill for a very minor fender bender.

Companies want to make as much money as they can; it only makes sense to cut the price of something if that price cut will mean more sales, and the increase in sales will offset the loss of profit from the price cut. As such, it only makes sense to apply discounts that will get you more customers.

Most car buyers don't look at repair/parts costs when making their purchase decisions, so charging less there won't attract many more customers. Better to reduce the forecourt price of the vehicle.

In other words: They charge as much as they can, because they know you can't get replacement parts elsewhere, and they don't think price-gouging on replacement parts will drive away customers.
posted by Mike1024 at 9:54 AM on June 16, 2010

Best answer: Given the fact that unibodies, chassis, drivetrains, and electronics are largely modular and widely shared, manufacturers won't stand to save very much money by making all of their cars look the same given the inevitable sales loss resulting from a fleet of identical cars.
And once a car is a few years old, the aftermarket availability for body panels and bumpers is pretty good. As soon as a car is between five and ten years old, I can stuff like heated motorized rearview mirrors painted to match through an aftermarket vendor.

Additionally, people care about how their car looks. All of the examples, so far, of cars that heavily source parts from the company bin have been really ugly and crappy cars. I think General Motors can single handedly make our point for us.
posted by Jon-o at 10:06 AM on June 16, 2010

Auto companies couldn't get away with sharing cosmetic parts- a single body style can last up to 7 years. Also, product lines have strictly differentiating price ranges - theres no way they could get away with sharing body parts across lines. They already do share of a lot of internal parts which you know.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:10 AM on June 16, 2010

In other words: They charge as much as they can, because they know you can't get replacement parts elsewhere, and they don't think price-gouging on replacement parts will drive away customers.

I am finding this to be the case with my aging Volvo, which has been a pretty reliable car but is starting to need more & more repairs and replacements due to regular old wear & tear. OEM replacement ABS control module? $450. OEM replacement air pump? $300. Charge by the dealer to READ A FRICKING ENGINE CODE? $50.00. (I never would have asked them to do it; given that Auto Zone will do it for free I assumed a dealer would too.)

I didn't buy this car... I was very fortunate to effectively inherit it when a relative stopped driving. I've found some enthusiastic shade-tree Volvo mechanic communities online that have saved me a ton of money (Found a replacement ABS module for $100 from a junkyard & it took 10 minutes to install myself) but Volvo being a pricier brand, I think most of their customers just assume dropping $350+ on every repair is just the cost of doing business.
posted by usonian at 10:52 AM on June 16, 2010

The car industry has matured a lot in the last 5 years, with major restructuring going on in the automotive world. One of the things that happens in mature industries is that quality and cost converge across all the remaining players. For cars designed and manufactured in the last 1-2 years, you'd be hard pressed to find significant cost and quality differences between Toyota, Ford and Volkswagon for example, for equivalent vehicles.

This has pretty much happened ages ago in industries like wristwatches, or t-shirts. You don't buy them based on "quality" or "cost". You pick the specific one you wear because it is an extension and embodiment of your personality. Cars are more and more like that now: given that reliability and cost is converging, you pick the one that resonates the most with your values and character. Hence the importance of unique external styling.


Also economies of scale of parts sharing doesn't lead to as much cost savings as you might think. This is a hypothetical example that might be a bit contrived but the principle is pretty much this - say you have one company producing 15,000 widget X for you per month, and another company producing 15,000 widget Y for you, each of them having a factory with one assembly line at max capacity. You now redesign your cars previously using widget Y to now use widget X, and now need 30,000 widget X....

1. You ask factory building widget Y to retool their line to produce widget X instead.
2. Or you ditch that factory, making them bankrupt and losing you mass amounts of supplier goodwill, and ask the first one to build an entirely new factory to build 15,000 of widget X.

It may well be that the max capability of an assembly line making widget X is capped at 15,000 per month, and the only way to scale that up is to add additional assembly lines, in essense setting up a duplicate factory next to it.
posted by xdvesper at 7:11 PM on June 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

No, no, no xdvesperm, you've got it wrong. What you do is ditch supplier Y so that they go bankrupt, then get your favoured supplier Z to pick up their plant for pennies on the dollar so they can supply you with the same parts at 30% of the original cost!
posted by pharm at 2:24 PM on June 17, 2010

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