Monthly Archives: December 2015

Uber’s domination ends the Knowledge as we know it …

Uber claimed its latest victim after London’s largest school for black cab drivers said that it would close its doors next month.

Malcolm Linskey, 70, who established Knowledge Point in Islington, north London, 30 years ago, said that the twin pressures of Uber and increased property prices had led him to believe that “we’re going to be brushed aside”.

To gain a licence, London cabbies must study “the Knowledge”, quite literally learning the ins and outs of 25,000 streets in the capital.

Mr Linskey said that the diminishing demand for knowledge courses was responsible for his school’s demise. “Demand has gone down since Uber arrived. Usually we have 350 students enrolling a year, last year it was 200.”

He said that his company would continue to produce and sell taxi driver training materials in print and online, supplemented by training sessions in church halls and community centres

Uber, which started in San Francisco, has been the focus of protests around the world, with Parisian taxi drivers even attacking their rivals.

Black cab drivers, unhappy with what they perceive as unfair competition from unregulated “ehailing” apps, have also taken their anger to the streets. In May many caused gridlock during a protest in central London.

Car industry reveals a clutch of big new ideas for the future …

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has chosen its shortlist for the annual award for automotive innovation in Britain.

Only too aware of the perils of creating the wrong kind of new idea as the Volkswagen emissions crisis rumbles on, the five contenders for this year’s award, sponsored by GKN and supported by The Times, show Britain competing at the forefront of automotive trends and thinking.

Projects cover the electric and driverless vehicles of the future and deal with the central issue of carbon reduction. They translate to how companies can “manufacture smarter” and, at the other end of the spectrum, how they can “sell smarter”.

The ideas, and their research and development, also show the diversity of where the industry is generating its ideas — from big brains spinning out of Oxford University to gaming software geniuses, and from specialist consultancies to small manufacturers and in-house engineers all charged with solving difficult problems.

Recent winners of this award have shown how British companies have transformed bus transportation, using Formula One motor racing flywheel technology or converting buses to run wholly on electric. There also has been recognition of Ford’s global research centre in Essex creating its company’s greenest internal combustion engine yet and Jaguar Land Rover’s plans to move to plug-in hybrids.

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the SMMT, said: “This year’s entries prove that innovation comes in all shapes and sizes.

“Whether it’s a new type of glue for bonding tricky materials or a 12-tonne truck, any concept that has the potential to radically improve the industry should be supported and celebrated. The 2015 judging panel has its work cut out. Choosing a winner will not be easy.”

Crash and burn: a history of car industry cock-ups and cover-ups …

The Sunday Times, 27 September 2015

Ford Pintos were sold despite having a fatal flaw Ford Pintos were sold despite having a fatal flaw

THE car industry is no stranger to scandal, but periodically one erupts that rises above the usual level of corporate misdemeanour and ignites the public imagination in a way that other consumer controversies do not.

Perhaps it is because the consequences of the faults are so grave. Or perhaps it is that, because of our love affair with cars, we feel betrayed on a personal level. Volkswagen has had more than its fair share, and not all of them about cars. Riven by corporate strife, it was also tarnished in 2005 by a good old-fashioned red-top tale of bribery, corruption and sex. It emerged that Peter Hartz, the company’s head of personnel, had authorised large payments to union officials to buy their support, as well as lavish trips and visits to prostitutes. The latest furore over emissions tests could prove the most serious, with the threat of criminal charges against those responsible for cheating American clean-air regulations.

What most car industry scandals have in common is that it is not the crime but the cover-up that has resulted in the real outrage.

Ford’s inflammable Pinto

Perhaps the most cynical safety-related scandal to date, the Ford Pinto affair has become shorthand for corporate immorality. When the Pinto appeared in showrooms in 1971, Ford knew it had a potentially fatal flaw. If the car was hit from behind, the differential could puncture the fuel tank, leading to petrol spraying into the passenger compartment and then igniting.

Ford decided it would sell the Pinto anyway, without modifications. Then in 1973 a memo from one of Ford’s accountants was leaked to the press, and it proved even more explosive than the car itself. Ford had worked out how much it would cost to re-engineer the car to make it safe; then it had calculated how many people were likely to be burnt to death in their cars. It put a figure on how much each of the resulting lawsuits would cost the company and decided it would be cheaper to pay the lawsuits than to fix the problem.

It took until 1978 for Ford to recall the Pinto (along with the identical Mercury Bobcat), from its 1.5m owners to make the necessary modifications. Ford ended up paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits.

Takata was criticised during a US Senate hearingTakata was criticised during a US Senate hearing (Tom Williams)

Takata’s exploding airbags

Airbags are meant to save people, not kill them, so when it became apparent in 2008 that car occupants were dying as a result of airbags exploding, something was clearly amiss. The problem centred on units made by the Japanese firm Takata and installed in millions of cars sold in America between 2000 and 2008 — or possibly even later.

Moisture could get into the airbags, causing them to inflate with far too much force in the event of an impact. If the inflation was especially violent, the airbag’s metal housing could shatter, causing fatal injuries.

As early as 2005 Takata knew that one of its airbags had exploded but did not investigate further at the time. In the event it turned out that 34m cars made by 11 companies were affected by the dodgy airbags — including more than 1m in Britain. So far, many of the faulty devices have been replaced, but many still haven’t. With so many cars affected, it could be years before the roads are cleared of cars with explosive airbags.

GM’s killer ignition switches

When you buy a car, you expect certain things from it — such as that it won’t kill you because of poor design or manufacture. Sadly for Chevrolet Cobalt buyers, that wasn’t the case.

The car was launched in 2004, and it soon became apparent that its ignition switch could fail while the car was being driven, leading to the power being cut. In the process, safety systems such as the airbags and antilock braking were deactivated. General Motors, the parent company of Chevrolet, knew about the problem around the time of the Cobalt’s launch, but did not fix it.

In 2006 GM thought it had better act, so it introduced a new ignition switch but kept the same part number so it wouldn’t be obvious that there had been a redesign. The truth was revealed by a small-town lawyer, who sued GM on behalf of the family of a woman who had died in a crash.

GM was forced to recall 2.6m Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (the cars were identical) and by the end of 2013 had accepted that the switches were directly responsible for 13 deaths. So far the scandal has cost GM an estimated $4.2bn.

The Saylor family died when their Lexus crashedThe Saylor family died when their Lexus crashed

Toyota/Lexus unintended acceleration

The most recent car scandal to affect British drivers centred on Toyota and its subsidiary, Lexus, which knew of a global problem with the accelerator pedals in its cars failing to work properly.

Things kicked off in 2009 when the US authorities released an audio recording of an off-duty California highway patrol officer, Mark Saylor, out of control in his Lexus at 125mph. The car crashed, killing him, his daughter, his wife and his brother-in-law. After the recording was broadcast, other drivers began to report similar problems. Toyota insisted that most incidents were the result of driver error or floor mats jamming under the pedals. Yet it was sitting on documents showing that the accelerator pedal’s design was flawed. It denied to The Sunday Times that the problem extended to Britain, but later it was forced to recall British Toyotas.

The US authorities imposed a $1.2bn fine – then the largest given to a car maker. The company was forced to recall about 9m cars around the world including 180,000 in Britain.