Planet Gore

Engineers and the Circus

Detroit — Getting to the bottom of an engineering problem such as Toyota’s alleged “instant acceleration” issue is a painstaking process. It is a method that does not conform to camera-thirsty pols seeking to show they care, journalists seeking quick headlines, and tort lawyers seeking ammo for class-action suits.

Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post reports on the embarrassment of ignorance at recent House hearings:

It was made painfully clear at the hearings that a number of lawmakers do not understand the process. An exchange between Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Toyota President Akio Toyoda illustrated the problem.

Toyoda said that when his company gets a complaint about a mechanical problem, engineers set to work trying to duplicate the problem in their labs to find out what went wrong.

Norton said: “Your answer — we’ll wait to see if this is duplicated — is very troublesome.” Norton asked Toyoda why his company waited until a problem recurred to try to diagnose it, which is exactly what he was not saying.

Members of Congress are generally lawyers and politicians, not engineers. But they are launching investigations and creating policies that have a direct impact on the designers and builders of incredibly complex vehicles — there are 20,000 parts in a modern car — so there are some basics they should understand. Chief among them: The only way to credibly figure out why something fails is to attempt to duplicate the failure under observable conditions. This is the engineering method.

Read Ahrens in full, glorious detail here.
Given the price to its reputation as a quality leader — not to mention its bottom line — Toyota has every incentive to get this method right. And the daily spectacle of grandstanding pols and breathless media auto simulations (see ABC here) should be understood for what they are: a circus sideshow.

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