I worked a short time for General Motors some 50 years ago, did not love them then, and do not particularly love them now. But since we are again going through a familiar dance about the evils of General Motors which includes the media, Congress, attorneys, and various people grieving over the loss of loved ones, we should keep a few things in mind.
Such dances have benefits, because companies do tend to become complacent about various aspects of product quality in the heat of seeking to increase their profits, stay at least even with their competition, and focus on marketing and growth, Occasionally they do need to be reminded by the press and public anger that they should tighten up their ship.
But General Motors sells some 2,750,000 automobiles a year, does business in 140 countries, and has a quarter of a million employees. In an activity such as this, many decisions are made, some of which in retrospect seem wrong. Also, in a sample of 250,000 people, a few may not have safety uppermost in mind. Humans are human.
Each year there are approximately 1.3 million automobile related deaths in the world. This amounts to 3500 per day, or one every six seconds. In the U.S. the death toll is about 35,000 per year. I drove through San Francisco yesterday when a long-distance foot race had the city traffic diverted into strange areas and made most drivers very angry. I then then came home down a jammed freeway with various impatient people trying to beat the crowd. I think it is miraculous that only 35,000 people in the U.S. are killed in automobile accidents each year. The equipment is pretty good. The drivers are the problem.
It is tragic if 13 people have been killed by faulty ignition swtches, and criminal if information that this was likely to happen was knowingly with-held. But whether we like it or not, approximately 55 million people die in the world each year ( we will all eventually be one of them), and 2.5 million in the U.S., so 13 deaths, although tragic to family and friends, would have gotten only local media attention, had not the faulty ignition switch been discovered. So maybe there is a bit of jump-on-evil-G.M. going on because it attracts media attention, offers politicians a platform for righteousness, and gives frustrated people on the internet a chance to vent on big business, Bush, Obama, Democrats, Republicans, terrorists, or whatever.
But it is important to remember that people screw up (especially in hind sight and if many of them are involved) and things break—always have, always will (especially if complicated). Yesterday my relatively new HP scanner/Apple computer combination quit scanning. I checked the connections, the system settings, rebooted everything, still no luck. After I finish this post I will uninstall the driver and install a new one. But it may still not work. It's failure will not kill me, but this is a relatively simple and mass produced digital system. I often have trouble with my digital electronics. Still anxious for automatic cars?
It is always possible to make more reliable products. But it costs. As an extreme example, the Mars Curiosity Rover and the spacecraft that landed it successfully in August 2012, were necessarily built to be highly reliable, and JPL had many years of experience in building reliable planetary robotic spacecraft. And this was a particularly challenging project. But the cost for the rover and and associated spacecraft was 1.8 billion dollars and over a decade was necessary to design, develop, and adequately test it. It survived launching, 9 months in space, landing, and is happily doing its mission. But 1.8 billion dollars would buy 60,000 General Motors cars at $30,000 each.
True, the cost would come down somewhat if a large number of Curiosity rovers and associated spacecraft were built, but extraordinary effort in design, manufacturing and testing each one would still be necessary to ensure that nothing would fail. The space shuttle received such attention, but remember the o-rings? Tesla automobiles are receiving unusual care, although a couple of battery incidents have received media coverage, but their relative production is low and their prices are high. if their output and prices approach those of Toyota’s, will they be able to avoid occasionally getting into trouble?
Again, things break and users and producers screw up. Trying to prevent this, or at least minimizing its impact, is a difficult part of the challenge in securing high quality products.