Thursday, March 4, 2010

...Paved With Good Intentions

I own a Toyota Smugmobile. Also known as a Prius. Wikipedia defines the word "prius" as "the neuter nominative singular form of the adjective whose corresponding masculine and feminine nominative singular forms are prior". Prior meaning first, or before everything else. So I am first, but have no testicles.

In some ways it is kind of a girl car. Or, if you prefer, a nerd car. One could only hope for the HAL9000 red eyeball in the center of the dash for it to be wholly nerdly. Many many computers run this vehicle. And some of them don't always work correctly. Hence, the recall.

I am reminded of the nameless narrator (one hesitates to call him a "hero") of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club, a recall coordinator for a "major" car company, who explains the company's recall policy in this way: "A is the number of cars in the field, B is the frequency of failure, and C is the likely cost of each litigation brought against the company by survivors. A x B x C = X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one." I hope I haven't mangled the text too much, but that's the gist of it.

And this appears to have been the philosophy of Toyota.

For those of you living on the moon for the last six months, Toyota has had to recall a whole bunch of cars for electrical faults, causing the accelerator system of the vehicle to turn on and keep going, no matter what the driver does. This would be termed a "glitch" in the world of computer programming, but in the world of automobiles, it translates to the phrase "fatal car crash." Originally, Toyota tried to blame stuck acceleration systems on the floor mats being "too tall."

Too tall? You're kidding, right. If it's too tall for ten seconds, why isn't it too tall all the rest of the time. This was not a physical problem, and any idiot with a measuring tape could have told you that.

What drivers are experiencing is somewhat worse. The car goes over a particularly weird bump (like railroad tracks), the stabilization system takes over, and the person (being a person) puts on the brakes. This causes the accelerator to engage. In other cases, it's simply been the accelerator that's decided to engage, and no amount of braking will slow the car down.

Imagine someone driving the car, slamming on the brakes to no avail: "Stop! STOP! STOP!!!"

"I'm sorry Dave, I can't do that."

Toyota used to be much more proactive about this sort of thing, not relying on others to point out their mistakes. Japanese car companies in general are known for meticulous attention to detail, and for quality standards that far exceed what's required by law. I read an article about the opening of the first Honda plant in the United States, written by a line worker. In it, he described spending all day every day for the first two weeks, building bikes for the first six hours, then taking them apart for the last two hours, all in aid of figuring out the best way to run the line. This was considered the standard Japanese model for building cars and motorcycles. From what I've read about American car manufacturers, this is all done through computer modeling and giving the line workers a few days furlough, while management figures it out. Much more cost-effective, I'm sure, but I'll bet the Honda model works better.

Anyway, I keep bringing my car in for regular maintenance, and I ask about the recall. They keep telling me that Toyota will get in touch with me if my car is one of the cars affected. Great. I'll find out my cars is a potential deathtrap when they finally decide it's my turn to get it fixed.

And even then, is the fix working?

Computer systems are as imperfect as the human beings who program them. Cars have become more complicated than the moon landers. As we gradually accept computing systems in more and more spaces in our lives, I think it would be wise to emulate the Amish. Talk about it endlessly, examine it and re-examine it before tentatively sticking one's toe in the water, and take years and years to incorporate such systems into one's life. As opposed to the "isn't that cool?" mentality, adding functionality upon functionality without perhaps, sufficient concern about whether each new function doesn't cause something else to fail under the right circumstances.

Which is all a shame, because damn, I like my car.

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