Monday, June 14, 2010

Sometimes it is the simplest things

When I took in my family’s nearly 20-year-old Civic for an emissions test, I received some bad news: it failed. Not spectacularly, thankfully. Just in one critical area. The NOxs were much too high, double the allowable tolerances mandated. OK, the car is old and with enough miles on its odometer (it is in miles as this Civic was built in the U.S.) to put me a good deal of the way towards Earth’s moon. Still, I did not want to hear was that it might take over $400 to fix.
Now, it’s not that I did not want to pay the cost of repairing whatever was causing the Civic to fail its test. It had to be done. What bothered me was that the price was quoted before I was told what the problem might be.
What happened next should not come as unexpected. I took the car to another shop. In the end, paid a little over $400 to fix the problem, which turned out to be a broken PCV hose and a burnt-out catalytic converter as a consequence of the hose failing; but the approach this shop took made all in the difference in my willingness to pay that cost. What was it?
One shop decided to quote me a price even before having done anything to diagnose the problem. The other shop took the car in and did something very simple: they had a technician take a look at the engine and soon discovered the broken PCV hose. They even showed it to me and asked that I leave the car with them to replace the hose and valve, and if that did not improve the emissions, they would move onto and test and replace, if needed, the catalytic converter.
Now, the first shop would have found the same problems. It’s hard to miss a broken hose. But the approach they had was all wrong, leading to lost work and revenue.
Try to imagine you are someone who owns an old vehicle. It has provided many years of reliable service to your family and you think that you can get a few more years out of it before it is finally retired. But a failed emissions test can be a make-or-break proposition for that customer. Depending on how you approach them, it could either convince them to simply junk the car and buy a new one, or hold onto the old car a bit longer. Coming out and saying you are going to need to spend X-number of dollars and not telling that customer what the problem is, or what it even might possibly be, might very well convince them that “Hey, this could be very expensive to fix. They say it is $400 now; but what happens when the car is on the hoist? Will I be told it will be more? What else may be wrong?” Soon the customer is eying the new car dealership down the road and mentally calculating leasing rates as opposed to car loans, and trying to find a way to tell the wife or husband the car is scrap.
Now the other shop took a simpler approach: find out what the problem is, show the customer the problem (the technician came out of the bay with the broken hose and service writer explained why it causing the skewed emissions result and why the catalytic converter would need to be checked after), and reassure them that the car will be in fine working order after the fix. This way the owner will not be tempted to get rid of their vehicle for a new one and thereby causing the aftermarket and independent service shops to miss out on business.
It all comes down to how you communicate with the customer.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Car hacking could be in your future

For many years, I covered the technology sector in Canada and the United States, and focusing on the security and privacy matters. Matters of security always came down to a set of trade-offs, mostly between protecting data and identity and user functionality. If one wanted an easy user experience, security took a back seat. To make things more secure, to protect sensitive data and personal information, roadblocks had to be put into place which always meant the user experience suffered. To do the simplest task meant going through a set of cumbersome security protocols.
The default position is still to simply make the user experience as simple as possible while holding onto the hope that no one really cares about the letter someone is writing or does not know that the computer hard drive has sensitive information. The industry tells everyone to buy and regularly update anti-virus and anti-hacking software as all software and OS systems, regardless of the developer, is riddled with security holes and problems.
It seems the automotive industry is discovering this same problem. A team of researchers at the University of California-San Diego and the University of Washington find today’s automotive ECUs are vulnerable to outside attacks. ECUs currently control, and will control even more in the future, a wide set of subsystems. What they found was using a vehicle’s communications port -- accessible to any mechanic or mechanically savvy person -- the researchers were able to mount a set of attacks that soon allowed them to disengage the brakes to mucking about with the instrument panel. The researchers soon found every system, from the engine and brakes to the lights and locks were open to attacks that could prove dangerous.
This might not seem to be much of an issue, as a hacker has to have physical access to the vehicle and its data port. However, with newer vehicles now offering Internet and Blue-tooth connectivity, and people today expecting to be connected all the time to the Web and information, it is not too hard to see that sometime in the future car hacking could be a very real problem. The automotive industry will soon have to face the same kinds of issues the computer software industry faces: offering vehicle owners as much online and simple-to-use access to enhance the driving experience while protecting sensitive on-board systems. The automakers are lucky as this issue can be dealt with now and cheaply.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nothing good can come from a fight over a name

Sometimes, it would be best if some people would take a time-out and think things through before entering into a public spat. There are some fights that may not be worth having as both sides come out for the worst.
Take the now brewing battle between the Toronto-based independent Ms. Lube and the national chain Mr. Lube. Ms. Lube’s founder Jessica Gilbank started the service operation to offer female technicians and apprentices a supportive work environment in an industry that, according to Gilbank, is still is not inviting too many women; and a friendly place to get one’s vehicle maintained and repaired. Mr. Lube, a national chain of over 100 quick-lube shops across Canada, has accused Gilbank of trademark infringement and it pursuing legal action again her in order to protect the Mr. Lube trademark. In seeking $250,000 in punitive damages and an injunction to prevent Gilbank from continuing to use the Ms. Lube name and trademark, Mr. Lube’s statement of claim alleges “The defendant has always known the name Ms. Lube would call into mind the well-known Mr. Lube trade name and trademark. This was part of the business model, namely, to trade on the fame and reputation associated with Mr. Lube.” Gilbank, no slouch it seem when it comes to a fight, shot back claiming Mr. Lube is trying to put her out of business with high court costs and the actions on the part of the company reflect the “machismo and male chauvinism that exists in the trade.”
It has be said that Mr. Lube has every right to protect its trademark and name; something any company will do if it perceives a possible attempt by another business to infringe on the company name. Gilbank also has to know that Ms. Lube, while wonderfully cheeky along with the poster girl inspired logo, would likely catch the ire of this national franchise. Gilbank is either very brave to try something like this, or very foolish in thinking she could get away with it.
Mr. Lube and its owners, however, have to be careful. While they may very well win in the courts, the fight could backfire on them. The UK McLibel Trial, an infamous legal case, is a case in point of wining in the courts but losing in the court of public opinion. To recap, McDonald's took Helen Steel, David Morris and three others to court for allegedly libeling the company in leaflets they handed out. While three of the defendants decided to apologize to McDonald's, Steel and Morris did not and went to trial. After two-and-a-half years, the judge ruled in favor of McDonald's on some of the libel counts. However, he found that other claims in the leaflets were supportable by the evidence documented in the trial. Worse for the company, the court of public opinion had decided against the McDonald's and it suffered greatly from the worldwide bad publicity the case generated, resulting in a documentary being made of the case and of McDonald’s actions and tactics, including how the company markets and sells it products. The British government was also taken to the European Court of Human Right for not protecting Steel and Morris’ right to free expression and a fair trial.
I don’t think this legal fight will in any way be supersized as such; but it does have the potential to put the whole independent service industry in a bad light. By going after a newly-started independent operation, Mr. Lube may make itself into a bully in some people’s eyes, using the courts to drive a hard-working entrepreneur out of business. Gilbank, in her chutzpah, is not making friends amongst many shop owners who have struggled for years to overcome the ‘grease monkey’ and sexist image people have of the industry, only to be told by someone new to the industry that most are still knuckle-draggers at heart.
Both sides need to come to some agreement to avoid either of these two outcomes.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How much are we letting go?

One of the consequences of doing a repair and part replacement with Jim Anderton (who you will know from our many videos at is finding out how even simple, routine maintenance work can take much longer than expected. We both discovered that during our video shoot of an exhaust replacement. Normally, this kind of work should be a simple affair: remove the old system and replace with the new one. Jim and I sourced the exhaust system replacement from a major manufacturer and booked about two hours to do the job at a local independent.
Well, things did not go smoothly for us. Before we knew it, the pick-up was making things difficult for Jim and we suddenly discovered that we needed a couple of crucial parts to complete the job. Not a problem, we both thought. The shop should have the parts. When we discovered they did not, we did not panic. Like any good shop, we went down their list of parts suppliers and began calling. That's when the problems began. One dealer operation, it was a Ford part we were looking for, was going to charge us an outrageous price for what we needed. A couple of other jobbers did not have the parts we needed. After some more calls, which proved fruitless, we moved to Plan B -- driving out to some local part suppliers to see what we could find.
That's when things began to get more interesting: one place only had one of the parts we needed, and the fellow helping us left a lot to be desired. And it was not exactly the right one to boot. So we drove to another jobber, only to find they had two parts in stock, but also not exactly the right ones. Now we were stuck. Jim and I could have gone to another place, but this two-hour simple job was now taking three-hours and much more. So we purchased the two parts, went back to the first place and grabbed the other, got back to the shop and then spent an good hour modifying the three parts to fit what we needed.
In the end, the job took nearly three times a long as what it should have.
Now, here is the question that has to be asked: if Jim and I were shop owners and technicians, would we have charged for those extra hours? Ideally, we should. All that running around was necessary to fix the vehicle and get it back on the road the same day. The reality is we probably would not have, certainly not if we wanted that customer to come back to our shop. Can you imagine the reaction of the customer as you try to explain why you had to drive around for an additional two hours to source parts and you are charging them some $200 say for that 'labour?'
So, a question I'd like to ask, and I will try to find out is how much work is everyone not charging for; how much labour is simply not billed in order to keep the work and the customer?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

What lessons can be learned from Toyota crisis

With the announcement that Toyota will globally recall over 400,000 hybrid vehicles, including its popular Prius hybrid, because of problems with the braking system, is just one more blow to the automaker's reputation and bottom line. This comes in the wake of weakening sales for the month of January, loss of consumer confidence and increasing litigation and calls for government investigation of the automaker.
Many are blaming Toyota management for the mess. Earlier this week, company's Japanese management, including Akio Toyoda, stepped forward and publically admitted to having failed to effectively manage the problems at the company and putting the global automaker in a crisis. Mr. Toyoda, grandson of the founder of the company, said a committe would be set up to look at quality issues and recently accounced he will come to the United States to get a better handle of the recall crisis.
I've been following commentary on Toyota for a number of days, but the only one that seemed to get to the heart of the matter was an op-ed piece by Matthew DeBond at the New York Times (
DeBond points out that while Toyota worked hard to become the largest car manufacturer in the world, it did not know what to do when it got that coveted spot. The company's vaunted management culture, which allowed it to grow and overcome its competitors, could not deal with the problems that come with rapid growth, outsourcing of production and parts and to move quickly to fix problems with its products. Instead, problems were ignored until they became too obvious to be dismissed, and then it was too late.
Now we see the result. While mechanical issues can be fixed quickly, management problems will take much longer and may be much harder to deal with.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sticking Points - A Word on the Toyota Recall

By David Halpert, assistant editor

It seems you can't turn on your television without hearing about Toyota and their latest woes regarding the recall. At the time I'm writing this North American recalls have totaled one million while worldwide recalls have estimated figures of around over two million. While it's difficult to determine the estimated fallout from this recalls--which can range anywhere from Toyota losing customers, to civil suit, to vehicles careening out of control on the highway--I side with Toyota on taking swift action to alert its customers of the problem and doing their best to 'contain' the situation.

Of course I say this with a huge grain of salt. For one, I don't drive a Toyota model (I drive a Pontiac), so I can't even imagine what it must be like to hear about this recall over the radio while driving on the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto in the middle of winter at 80km/h. I'm also aware that it's a serious issue when a product malfunction can lead to severe injury or even death. However, I'm still daunted by the enormity of this recall, and how I can't go two minutes on a busy street without seeing an affected model driving past me.

But recalls don't come cheap either, especially ones that include redesigned floor mats, reconfigured accelerator pedals, and a brake override feature on all vehicles built before 2010.

I'm sure there are technicians (and customers) that will disagree with me on this issue, but if anything I think other companies (not just in the automotive sector either) should take the Toyota recall as a case study when it comes to how a company takes care of their customers and their safety. Others will argue that the problem should never have happened in the first place, but once again I can't offer any answers other than to say "these things happen" and no amount of product research and development can predict how these vehicles will operate months, or even years, down the road.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Don't expect Detroit to gain from Toyota's troubles

Can the Detroit Three make inroads in the wake of Toyota Motor Corp.'s recent troubles? That is a question that has occupied some in the automotive industry, with Jack Fisher, senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports, writing that Toyota's troubles with its faulty accelerator pedal design opens a "huge opportunity for Detroit." Fisher, along with several other analysts and automotive industry watchers, suggest Toyota's accelerator pedal troubles strikes at the heart of the company's much-vaunted reputation for quality. The accelerator pedal problem, along with the possibility of class-action lawsuits being filed in the United States to an earlier recall with problem-plagued floor mats, could open the door to rivals as Ford and General Motors. Both North American car makers have offered rebates to Toyota and Honda owners.
While all of this makes for some great and entertaining speculation, I'm not so sure Detroit's automakers will be able to make significant gains against Toyota. One reason is that the Detroit Three have a long history for many North American car buyers of poor quality, starting from the 1970s. The Japanese brands have a solid reputation amongst many car buyers of quality and reliability.
Certainly Toyota's troubles have given the company a black eye, and it has been suffering quality issues for several years, but there has not been a mass exodus of Toyota buyers to other brands. That could change with the lawsuits or if the acceleration troubles involve something more serious, say the vehicle electronics. However, if car buyers do switch, it will likely be to other Asian car makers, such as Honda or Nissan. Detroit still has a long way to go with its own quality issues and with the lingering effects of bankruptcy for two of the three auto giants before it can begin to significantly take away major auto sales from its foreign competitors.