Daniel Ruth

Bells and whistles won't make it run

For want of a tiny gizmo a reputation and lives have been lost. Is this any way to run a car company?

Across the country and indeed the world, millions of motorists are fearful that if they drive their Toyota to the convenience store for milk, the experience might well turn into the final scene in Thelma & Louise.

Until fairly recently Toyota was sort of the gold standard for quality and reliability for some snooty auto owners, who turned up their noses at the prospect of even remotely entertaining the purchase of a car from a U.S.-based manufacturer.

Detroit was so declasse, so ooey-gooey, so second-rate. So Detroit.

Now it is certainly true America's Big Three automakers have had more than their fair share of oopsie production moments over the years, churning out dull and quite often shoddy wheels that would only appeal to one's inner actuary. So boring.

Today's car assembly plants are, in theory at least, the ultimate in technological marvel — robotics, the very latest in computer wizardry, incredibly precise and cost-efficient production techniques, all manned by a highly trained and professional work force. More or less.

And yet people are driving around in their Toyotas and suddenly discovering they can't stop the %$#@*&^$ car they just spent a small fortune to buy.

Not to sound too much of a Luddite here, but this is a bit nuts. After all, if you just dropped $25,000 on some hotsy-totsy Camry is it really too much to ask that it — stops?

Seeing all the images of wrecked Toyotas on the roadways after drivers suddenly realized they were trapped in a four-cylinder version of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey reminds me of a different time in the history of quality control.

In World War II, my father flew 50 combat missions aboard a B-24, including the daylight, treetop-level raid on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. It wasn't pretty.

There were times when the Liberators returning from their missions had two of their four engines shot up, gaping holes in the fuselage from antiaircraft fire, pieces of the wings shredded. And yet these planes put together with not much more than wire flew on and on.

And yet apparently one of the problems with the Toyota accelerator boo-boo is that if it gets a wee bit wet (how that happens is anyone's guess) then the whole thing runs the risk of turning into a mobile coffin — with a state-of-the-art CD player and a navigational device directing you to the nearest funeral home.

So now the company plans to install an itsy-bitsy steel watchamacallit, which will fix the problem and allow drivers to go on their way without having to take a Valium first.

All this horrific bad publicity. All this carnage. All this anxiety — only to be repaired by a modest thingamajig.

To be sure, Toyota hardly bathed itself in glory in the long run-up to finally admitting, that yes, perhaps this was more than a minor problem involving only a few cars. As public relations disasters go, you would think John Edwards was advising the company on transparency.

Of course, Toyota's problems are a mere bagatelle compared to the F-22.

Regarded as the most technologically advanced fighter in the world, the $65 billion fleet of 187 aircraft costs $44,000 per hour of flight time and experiences major critical failures for each 1.7 hours in the air. And the plane also has significant operational problems if it rains. Who knew?

What would we call this boondoggle? The Toyota of the wild blue yonder?

We invest an awful lot in the glitz of technology. We have bells and whistles providing us with fabulously appointed cars with all manner of creature comforts that seem to have a mind of their own; sleek, elegant jets capable of impressive aerial derring-do — just as long as it doesn't rain; 400-channel cable television delivery systems with nothing to watch; and elaborate cell phones and Blackberries making it all the more easy to engage in mindless chatter — and sexting.

There's no question Toyota and its gas pedal kerfuffle is a profound problem. But it is also a symptom. All this elegant technology brought to its knees, and the bottom line is it is all because the simplest, most obvious piece of equipment in a car doesn't work.

Poetically ironic isn't it? For want of a two-bit widget, market share, reputation — lives — are lost.

Perhaps what this society needs are fewer cars that can park themselves and more automotive versions of the B-24.

Bells and whistles won't make it run 02/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 4, 2010 6:05pm]

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