Basics like quality and reliability become critical if "intelligent transportation" is to be cost-effective

Are we, as an industry, ready for all the advances in technology that are possible today?

And, more important, is all that is possible today really required by our customers?

Those two challenging questions were posed to engineers and transportation-industry executives by David Hovind, president of PACCAR Inc., the keynote speaker at the recent SAE International Truck & Bus Meeting in Cleveland.

Addressing the theme of the meeting, Intelligent Transportation for the 21st Century, Hovind said, "The intelligent truck today can act as its own medical doctor/internist. It can give itself a complete physical exam asit moves its 80,000-lb. GVW down the Interstate to its destination. Its weight, body fluids, temperature, heart rate, or engine performance . . . even gastric distress or manifold pressure is monitored and reported.

"The truck can call ahead to its service provider so the technician knows exactly what the truck will need in the way of parts, service, and maintenance when it arrives.

"It doesn't get any better than this. Or does it?" he asked.

The PACCAR executive credited the transportation engineering community with driving the introduction of new technologies at a pace that has never been seen before in our industry . . . "and that can be good."

Promises of greater efficiency, better performance, and lower costs of operation fill many technical journals and Web pages, he noted. "But promises are easy to make, but not always so easy to deliver."

Here, Hovind cited some transportation innovations that never really made it: the rotary engine, pushbutton automatic transmission controls, and digital speedometers.

"All nice technologies," he commented, "but either poorly packaged for the marketplace or really not necessary or cost-effective."

Looking closer to home, Hovind reminded his audience that "In trucking we had such well researched inventions as the cab-under tractor, and the first wave of antilock braking that was a response to poorly written legislation in the early '70s, which was matched by an equally poorly engineered braking system.

"Fortunately, there is a longer list of technologies that have succeeded and that are cost-effective," Hovind said, "but we need to assess our readiness to implement many of the new intelligent systems. And, again, we also need to assess whether or not there will be a cost-effective benefit for our customers.

"Before we continue to make our products more complex," he urged that "quality and reliability must become focused targets for quantum leap improvements."

Noting that many suppliers listening to him at the meeting make components for both automobiles and trucks, Hovind asked pointedly, "Do you have different quality standards for passenger cars than you do for trucks? You must!"

The more we truck OEMs push for higher quality, he said, "the more we find that much of the supply base simply can't deliver the consistent quality required today," adding that [even] "the quality of components delivered to the automotive sector in North America is no longer good enough." As evidence he cited:

* The Big Three automakers' warranty cost per passenger car averages $1,000 for some models, while Toyota's and Honda's warranty expense for similar cars, J.D. Power & Assocs. reports, is less than half that.

* One U.S. automaker receives an average of 650 defective parts per million, but half the Asia/Pacific-region suppliers deliver zero defects.

"Over the last decade North American suppliers have made significant gains in quality for the automotive sector; however, these same suppliers and other suppliers to the truck builders have not," Hovind charged.

He urged his audience, "Think about how much more important these disciplines -- quality and reliability -- are as we move toward more advanced technologies. . . . If you don't take care of these basics, innovation becomes experimentation. We don't need that. Our customers don't need that."