The May 4, 2015 issue of The New Yorker magazine contains an article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled The Engineer’s Lament, with a sub title of Two Ways of Thinking About Automotive Safety. It is here.
Like many people, I am a fan of Gladwell, because he is both a terrific writer and capable of focusing on important and provocative topics. As an engineer, especially one who has witnessed controversies resulting from differences in the viewpoints of providers and consumers, I very much appreciated this article.
My experiences have included working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratories during the early days of space exploration in which failures of the first Ranger missions were greeted with a Congressional Investigation; working at Stanford when a difference in viewpoints as to the purpose of overhead on government contracts lead to a Congressional Investigation; and working in a start up when differences in opinion between the founder and the venture capital firms as to the pricing of the product (help the needy or maximize profit) caused a great deal of strife. In all cases, from my viewpoint as an engineer, the critical parties, although clearly trying to do good, just didn’t understand. I am sure they returned the favor. As a consultant, I have seen this situation occur time and time again both between and within organizations.
Gladwell’s article is focused on the process of deciding whether or not automobiles should be recalled for reasons of safety. Recent examples have included the recall of Toyota products because of potential “sticking” accelerators, recall of General Motors products because of ignition switch problems, and the older, but very significant recall of some 1.5 million Ford Pintos (suspected exploding gas tanks in rear-end collisions). I am sure you saw the plentiful media coverage of at least the more recent ones.
From the point of view of the companies, and admittedly many if not most of the engineers, the products delivered to the public are the best they can do within the monetary and time constraints demanded by competitive pressure. Automobile companies (I briefly worked for one) are extremely sensitive to issues of safety because they are staffed by humans , aware of their large liability exposure, constantly challenged by the shortcomings of drivers, and brutally attacked by the media when one of their components fails and kills innocent people. But being part of one is also to be aware of the very large numbers of components in an automobile, the numbers of automobiles delivered in a year, and limited time to ensure that no “bugs” exist in the final product. After all, the Curiosity explorer now on the surface of Mars has proven to be an extremely reliable product, but required 12 years and 1.8 billion dollars to produce. Granted that the environment it has been asked to survive is challenging, but so is that in which automobiles operate. And engineers do not have 12 years and 1.8 billion dollars to develop a single automobile.
Also, as Gladwell points out, the causes of automobile accidents are primarily due to such things as driver distraction (texting, talking, eating), alcohol, and poor skills, rather than automobile equipment failures. But victims of such failures (and their eager attorneys) see things very differently. Most people expect their equipment to be 100% reliable and safe, but not willing to accept the associated penalties. As near as I can tell, at some level of complexity and change, people (and robots) will screw up and things will fail. But it is possible to improve the situation by striving for simplicity, spending more money, and taking the time to do more testing. But we don’t want that. We want spiffy new stuff now with more bells and whistles at low price.
I am not putting Gladwells’ article in the “recommended book” column at the left of this page, but certainly would if it were a book. The good news is that it takes much less time to read than a book, and a link to it is in the first paragraph of this post. And it touches on a critical problem where product quality is concerned. Take a look at it. My wife loved the engineer jokes.