It’s long been fashionable to criticize U.S. auto firms. Much of it has been warranted and I’ve done my share:
- For too long, Fords burned oil at 50K miles—the day after you got the title. Growing up, over the 15 minutes it took to start one up, our whole yard turned blue.
- GM cars had nebulous aesthetics, poor reliability and lacked the gas economy of foreign cars.
- Chrysler had a special talent for ugly.
I’ve evolved, as have these auto firms. I’ve even noted why U.S. auto firms shouldn’t be counted out. In light of Toyota’s current issues as told by its own former products liability attorney, Dimitrios Biller, issues narratively charted here under key developments, Michel Martin’s Tell Me More show yesterday featured Washington Post car columnist Warren Brown, who accused the media of habitually ignoring quality concerns at Toyota while standing ever ready to report any lapses in U.S. auto firms:
So, are you suggesting that there has actually been this kind of quality problems all along and it’s just been ignored?
Yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. I am suggesting that in this particular case…the media failed …because the media had anointed Toyota the quality leader because the domestic [auto firms] supposedly messed up so badly. …The media…tended not to look at Toyota the same way it would look at General Motors, Ford, [or] Chrysler.
And as you can see with the files I gave you, there were many reasons…to look at Toyota. But time and time again, if there was a problem with sludge in tanks, for example, a murmur from the media and it passed. If there were other problems, a murmur from the media, it passed.
Most interesting, however, was this comment, suggesting the sheer psychological power of a brand—like bigotry—to deny and reverse the customer’s perception of an unanticipated product feature thereby converting it to something affirming of their vested belief:
And there was even a mindset among many Toyota owners and they would call me and say I have problem A, B, and C with my Toyota. What am I doing wrong?
If someone with a GM or Ford vehicle would call with a similar problem, oh these expletive people, you know, they messed up again. I’m going to sue them, so forth and so on. And …that was the mindset… A lot of us who covered this industry knew for a long time that there were consumer complaints about braking, but we couldn’t really interest anybody in those complaints because they were complaints against Toyota.
When I worked in diesel engine manufacturing and talked to fleet customers over product planning, they never said, “Give us more electronics and doodads.” And these were people for whom driving productively paid the mortgage. And when we broached a doodad discussion, they shut it down. They didn’t care less about another sensor feed to the cockpit. In fact R&D seemed far more excited about the doodads than any customers ever were. I’m not saying you can’t lead customers—you can. I’m not saying you shouldn’t . You should.
But the customers said they wanted better accessories mounting. TRANSLATION: access to the engine. They wanted to be able to work on the engine and they didn’t want to have to stand with their arm backwards in a V shape when they did. And don’t paint it black either, because they wanted to see things.
I wouldn’t have thought the three things fleet customers told me more than a decade ago they didn’t want in an engine, would have become today’s automotive standard: more electronics and cockpit feeds, and black (boxed) engines with no access. Increasingly, cars have become designed for the automakers:
- Try to find the battery in a new Mercedes.
- GM recently admitted that for years it based the undifferentiated auto interior design of its cars on the ease of assembly for its workers.
- Truly protective rubber bumpers disappeared.
- I doubt any customers ever demanded cars that could parallel park themselves.
- They all have warranties which adversely affect quality and price; car brands long associated with reliability earned their reputations before warranties ever proliferated.
“Today’s cars, Toyota and any other car from any major automaker, essentially what they are are computers on wheels, computers with steering wheels. Computers can be and have been affected by electromagnetic pulses. As a matter of fact, one thing many automakers do, …is they go out to Ohio – which basically has … huge electromagnetic pulses, and they test the car to see if its …electronic functions are negatively affected by those pulses. And so its logical to assume that electromagnetic pulses may, in this case, certainly affect brakes that don’t rely on your traditional mechanical cables, but instead rely on sensors and other electronic materials.”—Warren Brown
I believe car customers today lack choices. “We’ve been had. We’ve been took. We’ve been hoodwinked. Bamboozled. “