The pictures of the Bengaluru floods are bemusing because when you read some people’s comments on social media, it appears that many of them have never experienced urban floods before. As someone who used to be shipped off to Kolkata every summer as a young boy, floods aren’t new. What is new is the scale and poor planning in several upmarket areas. But this is not a treatise on the lack of urban planning in India; rather, it’s an explainer on why thousands of cars will need to be scrapped at the end of these floods.
Images from both high-rises and bungalows show the amount of destruction, mainly hundreds of flooded vehicles. But when the waters recede, as they always do, these cars will go straight to the scrapyard, minus the occasional spectacular repair bill that will outrage people. Just like me, many will wonder about their younger days when flooded cars were back on the road after a clean-up. In Kolkata, for example, after the floods, the Ambassador taxis would smell a bit ‘fishy’ for days, but ran like nothing ever happened.
So why can’t modern cars?
Well, it comes down to the simple fact that cars are modern. Your Ambassador or Padmini or even an early Maruti 800 were very simple cars. The only electrical wiring they had were for the lights and maybe the audio system. If you drive any car built after 2010, even something as simple as a Maruti Alto, the wiring harness that carries power from the battery and engine is now quite complex. On bigger vehicles like a Hyundai Creta or Kia Seltos, which have multiple digital displays, air purifiers and branded audio systems alongside sensors for the tire pressure, parking and multiple cameras, the wiring harness, rather wiring harnesses, are thick bundles carrying the power. In some luxury cars, the audio system has over 20 speakers with a power output of nearly two kilowatts. That is not an inconsiderable amount of power that needs to be carried from one point to another.
And here is the funny part: you do not see a single loose wire anywhere. All are hidden inside the car’s structure. The sensors are hidden in the car’s bodywork, nothing is visible. But a car isn’t waterproof, there are enough small perforations and leaks all over a vehicle and water seeps into those, and you don’t need me to remind you that water and electricity are not the best of friends. Even if the possibility of electrocution is negligible, short circuits can damage your car. Things as simple as the seat are now motor-operated electrical ones in many vehicles.
Also read: Indians are going nuts over supercars. Blame it on YOLO after pandemic
The astronomical cost of repairing
Some will argue that cars ought to become simple again, like the Ambassadors of yore, where the owner just cleared out the muck from the carburettor and got going again. Not that simple, because cars don’t have carburettors anymore. Thanks to the Bharat Stage 6 emission norms, all cars in India today have fuel injector systems, as do all the two-wheelers. Those injection systems need a computer to run them. Also, cars with injection systems do not cope well if water goes into the high-pressure fuel system. Damage can happen even while wading through seemingly small amounts of water. That big SUV of yours can be crippled by just a few inches of water.
And that is not all. In the light of the accident that took the life of Cyrus Mistry, we are talking of more airbags and alarms for seat belts. All those things need sensors as well. Yes, there is a sensor that actually weighs the load on the seat and sets off an alarm if a seat belt is not being worn.
Simply put, while the wiring harnesses and sensors may not even cost all that much, a vehicle will pretty much need to be taken apart to replace those. Over a decade ago, I had a bad accident where I drove a BMW 320d into a ditch on the highway out of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. I was trying to avoid a child, and luckily for me and those with me in the car, the ditch was full of water.
After waiting for rescue and managing to retrieve the car, we were surprised that it started. Indeed, it worked just fine. But when I asked BMW what became of the car a few weeks later—it was a press fleet car—they said they had totalled it. I was shocked. They said it made no sense to repair the car and that it was worth more in parts. The cost of taking the car apart to replace the sensors and the seats was just too much compared to the insurance value of the brand-new car.
It was the same story in Mumbai back in 2005 and in Gurugram a couple of years ago when several parking lots in luxury condominiums got flooded. Beyond a point, cars cannot sit in water and not be permanently damaged. Yes, many of them can be repaired but the costs will be astronomical and insurance firms would rather the car become a write-off than get repaired. And that is quite sad, some of the vehicles are expensive imports, others will have memories attached to them and several could even be brand-new. Honestly, it sucks, but there is nothing you can do.
While these floods in Bengaluru are extraordinary, thanks to unplanned development and rampant construction over water bodies, they will not be the last, neither in Bengaluru nor in other Indian cities. This is why taking a full and comprehensive insurance package that covers for all such eventualities, particularly for water and flood damage and for electronic components as well, should become compulsory.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.