Monday, March 15, 2010

Bovine Scatology

(Photo courtesy of Toyota's website, where I invite y'all to come down now and checkout the new third generation Prius)

"If there were some kind of electronic problem, you would think it might actually stay permanent," Michels said. "When your TV goes on the fritz, when electronic stuff goes on the fritz, it doesn't just do it once and never do it again."

That was a quote from Mr. Mike Michels, Toyota spokesman, referring to the company's conclusion that the runaway Prius in California was not caused by a hardware problem. The full article is here.

I call B.S.

I'm not ordinarily in the business of populating my blog with invective and emotional commentary about the day's events, I'd like to think of this discourse as rising above the fray; but in this case I couldn't help myself. You see, I was a TV repairman for many years; and still repair electronic equipment in the semiconductor manufacturing field. I've been a troubleshooter of electronic systems since the mid-1970s, when I was trained in the US Navy.

There, those are my credentials. I'd like to see Mr. Michels'. Just because he's never heard of intermittent problems happening with electronics doesn't mean they don't. Far from it, in fact.

In all the time I've spent troubleshooting problems electronic in nature, from naval shipboard systems to miniature VCR and camcorder technology to projection televisions and industrial manufacturing equipment, there's one word that sends a shiver down the spine of any competent technician: "intermittents". Intermittent problems, ones that come and go, and often disappear just when the technician has his meter out, ready to probe and analyze, are the normal reality in the business, and are also the most difficult ones to successfully diagnose.

Mr. Michel's statement, if it be accurate, is pure and utter hogwash of the lowest caliber. It is a lie whose peculiar caliber of evil is intrinsic to the boldness with which he delivered it; the best lies are always delivered with the utmost in conviction.

I'm not buying.

There are two calibers of technician, and I've seen and worked with them both: the first type is the one who denies the problem exists ("must be the ding-bat customer," they'll say) and tell them "we couldn't get it to repeat the problem here, sorry"; and the second type, the real technician, who knows it's not in the customer's interests to invent a problem, because the repair process is a great inconvenience to them; this latter type of technician knows there's a problem, and has developed strategies for making the problem show itself.

Many of these problems are thermal in nature; due to either a sensitivity to heat or cold, some component or solder connections will fail thermally. The strategy here is to apply heat to a component or circuit board, or cool individual components or modules, using a variety of methods available. Other causes of intermittents are caused by vibration, which can be found out by application of a variety of methods to apply a controlled vibration to a circuit board or module. Sometimes, a meter or other diagnostic test equipment has to be connected to a particular test point in a circuit and data recorded over time, in order to trace down the culprit. These strategies I've listed work for consumer electronics products, my field of specialty. I'll be the first to admit, however, that I'm no automotive systems expert, and don't pretend to know as much about the Prius as do the technicians and engineers at Toyota; that's their field of specialty. But I do know when I'm being lied to.

Cars are different from TVs and DVD players, but the underlying physical principles are grounded in a common science; and the failure methods of complex systems (a field of study in itself) are often similar. I'm certain there are special test methods available to these automotive engineers to resolve such problems; we need to get the politicians and bureaucrats out of the way and let the engineers do their jobs. But, I know electronics systems, and the way they behave; and I know bureaucrats, and the way they behave; intermittents are a reality in any complex system, and for a company representative to state otherwise does a disservice to the company he represents, and the company's customers.

I do not know the details of the incident on the highway in California, other than what's been mentioned in the press (and not all of that can be trusted, either); I have no comment as to the driver's motive, or veracity. I really don't care. It's actually incidental to the heart of this problem, which is not about the customer, but about Toyota's behavior. You'll notice, in the latest stories, how our attention is being redirected, away from Toyota and onto the car's driver. He may have done something completely wrong; he may be outright lying, covering his ass because he was speeding. Doesn't matter to me; he's not the issue. The issue is Toyota. The issue is about a relationship of trust between a company and its customers; it's about reputation.

I have no axe to grind when it comes to Toyota; I've owned two in my lifetime. I've had worse cars, and I've had better. My 1986 Toyota pickup blew a head gasket after 4 years; the legendary 22R engine had its problems, it seems. Later, I knew a person who worked at a local Toyota dealership in the early 1990s, and explained to me that Toyota also had lots of head gasket problems when they were first introducing their V6 engine into their pickups. I cannot verify this, it's just word of mouth, urban legend. But I would like to think that the laws of physics and thermodynamics apply to Toyota Motor Corporation, just as they do to every other company on the planet. To imply otherwise is being dishonest; these corporate spokesmen who lie to us are just blowing smoke if they want us to believe otherwise; and we lie to ourselves if we think one particular brand of car somehow violates the laws of nature.

The mistake Toyota made (and continues to make) is not an engineering mistake, for such problems happen to all brands and types of vehicles; that's just the nature of complex systems. No, the problem Toyota made for themselves (and their customers) is political, and it's of their own doing, and they have no one to blame but themselves. Now is the time for them to admit their responsibility to their customers, and quit lying to us, and to themselves. Maybe it's cultural, or even racial. Maybe we're just Gaijin. Even so, mighty Toyota cannot violate the laws of nature. It's time for a little humility.


Blogger Olivander said...

As someone who has a couple of decades of a different sort of electronics troubleshooting under their belt (lab equipment and server support), I see your BS and raise you a herd.

8:18 PM  
Blogger deek said...

And just days after I read this, my work PC goes on the fritz with an intermittent problem, most likely a bad CPU fan (i.e. heat issues).

8:46 AM  

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