Detroit floors the accelerator on technology
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As it bores down on perhaps its biggest job of all time - meeting the competitive onslaught from Western Europe and Japan - the US auto industry has its eye, above all else, on quality.Skip to next paragraph
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The development and production of sounder American cars is the point behind today's new plants and the modular-assembly techniques and ''Star Wars'' automation that may still be a few miles down the road.
The industry's hope is that this emphasis on quality may eventually erase the recall campaigns which have been such an annoyance to company and consumer alike.
Meanwhile, carmakers are taking sometimes painful steps to ensure better products.
GM, for example, has fallen thousands of cars behind its projected output for C-body luxury cars because of nagging start-up problems at both Orion and Wentzville. Rather than produce poor-quality vehicles at the plants, GM spokesmen say, the big carmaker blew the whistle on its suppliers both within the company and from the outside.
''I think they've got the message now,'' a GM supervisor asserts. ''When you refuse to accept a parts shipment, the shipper soon knows you mean business.''
Further, GM plans to send the first 300 workers in its new joint-venture California plant to Toyota facilities in Japan for training, similar to the programs at both the new Honda Accord plant in Marysville, Ohio, and the Nissan light-truck plant in Smyrna, Tenn.
But talking about quality and taking some preliminary steps toward it are relatively easy. Achieving it can be difficult indeed.
There are two kinds of quality, according to Martin Anderson, executive director of the Future of the Automobile Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
First, there's the question of ''dealership defects.'' Unless a dealer takes the time to prepare a new car properly for delivery to a customer, making sure that the car runs as it should, that its appearance is free of glaring lapses, and that the car is equipped and delivered according to the specifications on the order form, customer complaints are likely to ensue.
Second, US carmakers have long been beset by the impression among motorists that their products are more shoddily built and just don't last as long as the imports. Long-term durability is at the heart of what a lot of people mean by ''quality.'' This concept of ''perceived quality'' has particularly favored the Japanese.
Mr. Anderson, in a sense, takes the domestic automobile industry partway off the hook. ''Nobody in the world can launch a new car without defects in the first year,'' he declares, explaining that ''the Japanese and the Germans keep their first-year production at home. We only get the cars after they've eliminated the bugs in their own home markets, whereas we see all of our bugs right up front.''
Frustration over well-publicized failures (GM X-car brakes, Ford and GM transmissions, poor-running diesels, and more) prompts James Donaldson, director of advanced car business and power-train planning at Ford, to lament: ''It's a jungle out there, whether you're forecasting sales or technology trends or anything else.''
The Ford executive declares, ''You're continually trying to go back to basics.''
The point is, the American carmakers appear to know the imports inside and out - you can see overseas cars all over the place when you tour their research facilities.
They have a good idea of what it will take to meet the imports' challenge in the showroom and on the road. But whether they can effectively tackle the job, in a cost-competitive manner, is still an open question.
The foreign competition, it should be remembered, is also moving rapidly ahead on the technological front.
Recognizing the reality of the situation, GM chairman Smith concludes: ''It's a race for survival, and only the fittest will finish.''