Jan 7, 2019

Airplanes and Motorcycles

All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day

I got this note from a friend who was, like me, suckered into that camper/disaster we both know as Winnebago's "Rialta."

"Here’s a question: when I was in the Air Farce, I worked on five different kinds of jet fighters, from the oldest to the newest: T-33s to F104s. Many of those planes were flown daily, and while of course things went wrong, mostly they did not, especially major stuff. Then I think about commercial liners and how infrequently they have serious problems. So why is that cars (and motorcycles), so much simpler by far, are so problematic in comparison? Different sets of standards for mfg and maintenance, I’m sure, but can’t the auto industry step up and take some lessons, or would it be too expensive?"

That's a pretty cool question and one I've thought a lot about over my years in manufacturing. Maintenance, of course, is huge. The FAA and airplane manufacturers specify replacement-before-failure intervals and obedience to those inspection and replacement periods are expected and required. Airplane maintenance schedules require more daily (if the plane is in use daily) maintenance than most cars get in their first five years of service. Engines, prop or jet, are required to be overhauled or replaced on fixed intervals, regardless of their functional status. Preventative maintenance is a given in airplanes and nobody serious argues that being allowed to fly an unsafe airplane is a right. Access to the nation's air way is absolutely considered to be a privilege that is well-regulated by the FAA. There is no slack allowed. Every few years, some White House idiot decides to dumb-down some of the airlines' regulations and we get a 9/11 (Remember Air Marshalls?) or an Air Florida Flight 90 or some other sort of disaster. Then, the old list of rules gets reinstated and a bunch of new ones come on-line.

However, most consumer-owned vehicles are incredibly reliable (excepting your and my experience with the VW Eurovan), especially considering the idiots who own the damn things. Getting 30k out of a 1950's car between major engine work was pretty amazing and 1960's Euro bike owners thought 5-8k from an engine was "big miles." There are (and were) exceptions, for sure, but we expect ridiculous service from vehicles we barely look at, let alone maintain. Toyota's Prius owners are expecting 200k-300k out of the batteries and power train. I'd say that is pretty stepped-up.

There are limits, though. Expecting 300k from an automatic transmission says more about the kind of fools who buy cars than the manufacturer's performance. I might not know anyone who realizes that automatic transmission fluid needs to be periodically changed. And you and I know from working on VW products that that company's engineers must be kids who shouldn't be designing LEGOs toys, let alone vehicles.

There is a different standard of expectation for airplane design and maintainability, too. Things like wiring drip loops, electronic component mechanical and environmental protection, connector quality, big safety design margins, and system redundancy are required in airplanes. Mostly, that stuff doesn't get a second thought in cars and motorcycles. The closest thing to a backup system in a passenger car is the fact that when the power brake assist system fails, you still have a basic hydraulic system that will, eventually, stop the car if you are strong enough. Commercial airplanes have actual backup engines capable of keeping the plane in the air and getting it safely back to the ground.

Performance vehicles, like Corvettes, should be expected to wear quickly. Race bikes get overhauls regularly, too. If you want big power from a small, lightweight package you're going to be doing repair work regularly. Pushing lubrication costs power, so those vehicles push as little oil as possible.

Design safety margins add weight and cost. Since the initial cost of an airplane, especially commercial airliners, is so high, the expected lifetime is 25-40 years. Reliability is included in the price of the vehicle. The average age of an American-owned car is currently about 11.5 years and new car owners hang on to their vehicles about 6.5 years (which is up about 2 years from 2006). I guess that is some kind of indication that modern vehicle reliability is improving.

I think the best we can hope for, given the price sensitivity of the personal vehicle market, is baby steps in car and motorcycle reliability. Unless we're willing to put up with maintenance regulations and high initial costs, we're getting at least what we're paying for.

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