In what might be considered a venture into enemy territory, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Joan Claybrook went to the Harvard Business School last week for a rare opportunity to tell the automobile industry ot its face to shape up.
A select 150 people - representatives of the auto industry consumer groups and the Department of Transporation - had gathered at the B-school for a two-day sysmposium on Technology, Government and the Automotive Future.
DOT cosponsored the unprecedented conference at a cost of about $80,000, and managed to draw people from every level of the automobile companies.
And although most of the 10 seminars were lively argumentative sessions in which regulators, auto executives and engineers, and consumers swapped theories and arguments, the closing address by Claybrook was a broadside aimed at what she considers a critical failure of the industry to encourage innovation, especially in the area of safety.
"Historically," Claybrook said, "the domestic automotive manufacturers have had little internal stimulus since the 1920s for development of motor vehicle innovations, and particularly ones concerned with so-called externalities - that is, health and safety items of concern to car users or the public generally but of little concern to manufacturers who suffer no harm in their absence."
Feeling a bit heady when she arrived for her speech at the close of the final day of the conclave - she had just announced final settlement with Firestone Tires & Rubber Co. for a voluntary recall of 7.5 million tires - Claybrook spoke defiantly of an industry she said is more concerned with short-term profits than safety.
The government's chief auto safety regulator told her audience that government regulation is one of the strongest stimuli for safety innovation in the auto industry.
Although she admitted that, in "industrial automation, styling and promotion, the auto industry has been quite productive," she went on to point out that "this has not been the case with the subject of all these efforts - the operating motor vehicles itself.'
Claybrook contended that the industry favors innovations "that reduce cost and promote productivity for the manufacturer as opposed to product innovations that reduce harm or provide other benefits for the purchaser."
Claybrook cited research to indicate that the auto companies have relied heavily on their suppliers for advances in technology, especially "on new items like power steering and brakes, ball joints, alternators and transistorized ignitions."
She also referred to a study that suggested "two primary sources of shared monopoly [in the auto industry] - the model year change and dealer-franchising policies - are disincentives to innovation."
Claybrook said the annual model change "serves as a method of encouraging faster replacement and larger sales has consisted primarily of superficial frills and style rather than technological or significant engineering changes, a logical strategy if the objective is minimum risk and cost."
But the feisty regulator said that "the companies avoided like the plague any mention of improvement which might ameliorate the so-called damage - claiming that any mention of them might scare customers away."
Claybrook said the "auto industry has been plagued by the NIH (not invented here) syndrome from its early days. The companies do not like to pay royalties to inventors and have been known on core than one occasion to review an inventor's patent and subsequently develop quite similar products on their own - leaving the small inventor the alternative to sue a company with resources he could never match."
To prove her thesis to the industry "that it can be done, that far safer, yet attractive and fuel-efficient vehicles can be manufactured and can be appealing to the public," Claybrook noted that two new experimental vehicles are about to be unveiled by NHTSA - "one quite close to the state of the art of present manufacturing but significantly exceeding the safety characteristics of presently produced vehicles, and the other a new-concept vehicle."
"This is no safety pin industry with an essentially mature technology," she said in closing "Motor vehicles have an unfinished technology that desparately needs what industry engineering creativity can give it - heavy infusions of engineering progress."
Harvard professor and symposium sponsor William Abernathy called the speech "thought-provoking." He said it and the conference "served as an opportunity for industry, consumers and regulators to listen to each other's views in a single forum. I'm sure everyone learned something from it."
Several auto company executives, however, were unhappy with which came only minutes before they were bussed to the airport to catch planes home, and prevented most from having a chance to reply.