Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Sane Word About Toyota

Why doesn't anyone explain the Toyota mess from a perspective of sanity?

If you sell millions of cars, statistics dictate that you'll get "
million typing monkeys" type results. Every report you could possibly imagine will roll in. You will get one-off reports of sedans suddenly transforming into fairy chariots, of steering wheels growing inexplicably smaller on rainy days, of exhaust systems that play "Ode to Joy" and shut-down cars going on satanic rampages and trying to mow down the mailman.

You cannot, in other words, have "zero tolerance" for reported safety issues, because too many crazy, stupid, deluded, loud-mouthed, random people are flooding you with too much ridiculous data every minute of every day.

A level above that are errant reports from relatively sane people conscientiously describing seemingly real problems...but who are observing wrong. They're making mistakes and misattributing them to defects. Think about it: you're sane and conscientious, right? And I'll bet you, from time to time, get stuff wrong. One time out of a thousand, you get something totally egregiously wrong. Well, millions of car owners - even leaving aside the crazies - getting stuff egregiously wrong .001% of the time means a huge swarm of noise for those trying to detect bona fide safety issues.

Single reports can't possibly be chased down and investigated. Clear patterns must be detected. And that means a lot more than zero tolerance. Extremely sporadic problems - like those afflicting Toyota - look a lot like noise.

In hindsight, after a serious pattern has emerged amid the noise, it's easy to recriminate. We hope car makers take every single report extremely seriously. They can't. And while that sounds callous to us, and we get indignant reading transcripts of execs blithely shrugging off sporadic problems and trying to manage their way around recalls, that's the only way it can possibly work.

The odds demand that some apparently crazy claims must eventually prove true. And therefore cars may explode, and people may be injured, or even die, before a problem's taken seriously. Exploding cars and dead drivers are, we all agree, bad things, but cars explode and drivers die for reasons that are no fault of carmakers, too. Driving has never been a risk-free proposition, and cars are not designed or built with the meticulousness of airplanes (if they were, we'd never afford them). It's all compromise.

The truly amazing thing is that cars work as well as they do, and that so very few people die as a consequence of mechanical error. It'd be great if we could do something about the tens of thousands of annual deaths from driver error.

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