What you can count on

It was not an auspicious start. The hangover was continuing to build, an unwelcome guest left over from Wednesday night’s ritual end-of-year poisoning. I still had an enormous pile of stuff to fit in the car for the holiday road-trip, leaving infeasibly little room for provisions, and I realised that I had forgotten some key items in any case, despite the veritable mountain of non-key things.

Then the car stalled outside the supermarket and clicked ominously rather than giving the more reassuring starting noise when the key was turned. One didn’t need to be a lip-reader to understand the frustration of the woman in the car behind.

What is this all about

My car is a red 1990 Lada Niva, a boxy, two-door, four-wheel drive beloved of off-road enthusiasts. They were more common in New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s – I am told the Dairy Board once offered them to farmers as part-payment for milk that had been provided to Russia, which was not able to make payment using more traditional means. These days, however, they are lamentably rare, the victims of vicious rust, and design and manufacturing that reflects 1960s Soviet standards rather than those of a more modern and capable age.

This car would never attract the sobriquet “reliable”. “Hardy” or “rugged”, for sure. “A good vehicle for do-it-yourselfers”, absolutely. A very cheap and uniquely stylish ride it is as well. And it sports a tag that proudly says “Made in the USSR”, something that can not often be claimed these days. But it is certainly not reliable.

Its simple dashboard has few of the gauges that trouble or inform modern drivers. It does feature both a fuel gauge and fuel light, warning of near-term problems if fuel cannot be found, and an engine oil pressure light, warning of a very near-term troubles if oil cannot be discovered. Befitting their different levels of priority, they are different colours – red for oil disaster pending, yellow for fuel stop required soon.

When I turn right, the fuel needle slides to the left and the yellow warning light comes on. Happily, this is easily repaired by turning left. The speedometer bounces around erratically and noisily, leaving a driver to interpolate the actual speed as the mid-point between the low and high readings in any given second: the only time it is still is when the car is stopped, when the speedo reads a constant 12 kmph.

The electrics are deeply unpredictable. The horn sometimes beeps at the merest touch of the panel on the middle of the steering wheel, but most of the time it cannot be convinced to sound at all except by sustained pressure on the middle of the panel, rendering it useless for all practical purposes. In any case, the noise the horn makes is so meek that it would likely be mistaken by other drivers for a passing duck, perhaps calling to its comrades on the wing.

The purpose of the switches sported proudly by both internal lights is unclear to me, since the lights generally stay off regardless of their position. But sometimes the lamps do find a way to secure some electrons through the maze of dirty, coloured wires that snake from the battery through the internals of the car, and light up when the door is open or sometimes when it is not. Sadly, even on these occasions, the light they give off is insufficient for any practical purpose. But I appreciate the effort they make all the same.

It is a car that one needs to listen to: it trys to tell me how it is getting on. I now identify a series of normal noises (rhythmic thrum at high speeds (i.e., over 90kmph), rattle from accelerator between two and three thousand rpms, open-throated roar from the exhaust at precisely two and a half thousand, rattling from a loose screw in the left-hand door). New noises might indicate problems. I have been listening for some thousands of kilometres to the transmission, trying to decide if there is an unusual noise, but so far, if there is, it is inaudible compared with the noise from the engine and the gearbox. I dream of installing new, thicker heat-resistant padding around the central console and in the footwells to enable easier conversation while in transit.

The stereo gives no impression of going at all, but sometimes when the car is turned off, it lets out a short melody, a tiny burst of electronica in my day, presumably designed to reassure me that the stereo is actually operational. I consider this delusional at best, and deceptive at worst since at no other time does the stereo make a sound.

A boat for the people

Lada is, as is well known, a brand of the Russian car company Avtovaz. Ladas are churned out by the millions by 110 thousand employees at a factory in a town called Togliatti – a city of some 720,000 souls on the eastern side of the Volga in southern European Russia.

(Delightfully for those who have a soft spot for the Communist International, Togliatti was called Stavropol until 1964 when it was renamed in honour of Palmiro Togliatti, the longest-serving secretary of the Italian Communist Party. Quite an honour, I suspect.)

The Lada is a conversation point for those who see it, and so I have been told many times that Lada is basically a rebadged Fiat. The Avotvaz company was established by arrangement with Fiat in the late 1960s. Russian engineers borrowed (and improved) the design of many Fiats to make their Ladas, but in fact the marvelous Lada Niva whose company I currently enjoy was the first model that Avtovaz’s engineers designed on their own. I understand that they continue to make the Niva and it continues to be popular in Russia and in other places where owning a hard-wearing, cheap automobile is de rigeur.

While I enjoy its present, I fear for the future of this automobile. For I think Avtovaz will face ongoing difficulties with the perception and reality of unreliability. I only have to mention that I own a Lada for the eye-rolling and jokes about its legendary crapness to start. And it isn’t clear that this thorough-going badge of low quality will be quickly or ever resolved. I do wonder what brand value was attached to the billion dollar purchase of 25% of Avtovaz in 2008 by the same folks who own Renault.

Expecting reliability

All of which makes me muse about reliability, particularly when driving in my car.

The etymology of the word suggests that the word “rely” in the sense of depend upon is an additional meaning added in the sixteenth century to a word that originally meant “to fasten” or “to attach” from the Latin word religare (“to bind” – like the word ligament).

To say something is reliable means that one is able to rely on it, by which we mean it is reasonable to expect that the something will perform its function in a particular way. Reliability does not say anything necessarily about the quality of the performance: I can say that my starter motor can be relied upon to fail regularly. So reliability is fundamentally about predictability and, as I understand it, this is the engineering usage of the term.

But often in normal speech, “reliability” means both predictability and proper performance. If my starter motor is reliable, that means that I can confidently predict that my car will start when I turn the key. Reliability is therefore the opposite of uncertainty. Reliable things do what they say on the tin. And they reduce uncertainty and vanquish unpredictability in the world. Thus my definition of reliable in this context is “consistent high performance”.

Coming at the definition from the other end, having an unreliable car means that one needs to be able to rely on other things to get to where one is going. One must have systems in place for when the unreliable car performs as expected and fails to work. I can tell you from personal experience that there is no better value for money than that offered unreliable car drivers by an AA membership. I can also tell you that one must have an understanding mechanic, one should keep the number of a friendly tow-truck operator in one’s phone, and one should always travel with flexible plans – an unreliable car and a committment to timeliness are not good bedfellows.


What I find most amazing about reliability is none of this. It is that, as a society, we consider it entirely reasonable to expect consistent high performance from all the myriad complex machines that we use every day. Our society rests on machines and systems that work so well there is real surprise and geniune consternation and surprise when they fail.

Think about a random selection of some of the things we rely on each day. Vaguely in order of reliability from most reliable to least, a short version of such a list might include:

  • Airplanes
  • Electricity supply
  • Toasters
  • Cars (except mine)
  • The software on a computer

Generally there is no reason to question or even to think about the performance of these everyday items. I need know nothing about how the airline ensures my airplane can fly, nor how my car, telephone, television, electrical sockets, computer, toaster or rice cooker operate. The objects of everyday life are created by others, cheap, safe, convenient and simple to use. If one does not work as expected (a bump in the flight, a crash of the operating system) I am justified in being concerned and in complaint, despite the fact that these wondrous inventions are not far removed from magic in their reliabile conquering of complexity and difficulty in every day life.

Let me expand. My car, old and crap though it is in many ways, is an amalgam of multiple complex systems, each of which is amazing in its own way. It has a battery, connected to a (troublesome) starter motor, which kicks off an engine, that draws in petrol from the gas tank mixed with air in the carburettor, and then generates numerous small controlled explosions – several thousand every minute – that generate both energy to turn a crankshaft, which goes through the gearbox and transfer case to make the wheels turn, and waste gases that go through the exhaust system and out the back of the car. As well, it has brakes (both for foot and hand) that slow things down, suspenson on every wheel to make for a more comfortable ride, a water and oil cooling system to keep the engine lubricated and at an appropriate temperature, and an enormous number of electrical systems (including the heater, headlights, cigarette lighter, horn, indicators, hazard lights, and windscreen wipers front and back) to make operations safer, better or more comfortable. The seats lift up to let people into the back, and they can be adjusted back and forward. The windows wind down and up. The boot opens for storage. Under the hood it carries a full set of tools and a spare tyre, in the event that some simple problem can be fixed by the roadside.

Within each of these systems there is also remarkable complexity. The starter motor alone has 48 numbered components on the coloured breakout diagrams I have that make the Lada seem both beautiful and mysterious on the inside. Here they are: Armature shaft, starter motor cover bush, pinion stop collar, driving pinion/clutch inner ring assembly, thrust half-ring, overrun clutch roller, overrun clutch casing, operating lever pivot pin, plug, relay armature drive link, operating lever, drive-end cover, relay armature return spring, starter motor relay armature, front relay flange, relay holding winding, relay plunging winding, armature core bar, relay core, core flange, contact disc, relay cover, relay contact bolts, commutator end cover, positive brush holder, starter motor cover bush, end float shim, lock washer, clamp bolt, casing, stator winding series coils pinout, commutator, stator winding series coil, stator pole, starter motor housing, armature core, limiter plate, drive ring, hub/clutch outer ring, overrun clutch hub liner, ignition switch, alternator, battery, starter motor, starter relay, guide bar, plunger, flywheel.

The windscreen wiper – a humble system, one might thing – has 51 numbered components.


I know that my car is a complex beast, and that the Avtovaz motor company is not famous for reliability. I understand that my car is old, and that it has multiple systems that depend on each other. I have experienced many times that the failure of something very small – like the solenoid in the starter motor – will lead to the failure of the whole. I can see that even the windscreen wiper, simple in theory, is bewilderingly complicated in practice. Asked to build one myself, I would be entirely at a loss. The complex component in my even old and crap car is the result of years of engineering development, refining the questions of how to make a perfect windscreen wiper down to a very fine art.

And despite all this knowledge, I am always frustrated and annoyed when my car breaks down, when my phone won’t get my email, or when my iPod fails to sync properly. (It seems that the less control I have over something, the more annoyed I get when it does not meet my expectations for reliablity: I blame myself if my toast is burned). But it also seems to me, when I am in a more contemplative frame of mind, that society might just expect too much.

So what is my point? I guess this is a plea for you to think just a little more about the systems you rely on, to marvel a little more at the wondrousness of the things you take for granted everyday, and to realise that even the most basic of daily simplicities relies on a remarkable web of sophisticated development that spans the efforts of generations of toiling engineers who just want to make your life more predictable.

I expect nothing less from you.


6 thoughts on “What you can count on

  1. Очень хорошо – с нетерпением ждем вашего следующего платежа. The similarities between your Lada and the hey day of British Leyland with the Maxi, Allegro and Princess are striking. Perhaps you should drive it back to its factory in Southern Russia for an overhaul?

  2. I have owned many cars in my day and starter motor solenoids on most models and makes give up at some point. Lets not blame the Lada, as you so rightly point out. The engineers in Russia didn’t invent that bit. And yes…the complexity of all things should not be taken for granted…ever

  3. est-ce que ca veut dire que maintenant tu te fâches moins souvent quand tu as des problèmes avec la technologie (je ne pense pas que c’est possible pour toi)? p.s. j’aime la lada. même si elle fait un bruit de canard de temps en temps.

  4. Pingback: Distant pangs | whereishayden

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