That Toyota mess? That's on me

It's time to fess up.  All the problems with the Toyota Prius brake and acceleration systems are my fault.  Let me explain.

A few years ago I was a PR consultant to VaST Systems who made virtualization technology allowing engineers to simultaneously test and modify hardware and software designs prior to prototyping and manufacture.  Shortly before I came on board, EE Times did a teardown of the Prius at the 2007 Embedded Systems Conference and one of the small bits of the discussion was how VaST Systems tools were used to build the engine control systems of the 2006 models.  VaST was very proud of this fact and as a result, they turned a lion's share of their concerns to automotive systems development.  Toyota was a marquee customer that th mentioned in all their presentations.

Through most of my tenure with the company I regularly but softly recommended that improved safety and reliability should be front and foremost in their presentations, but the reality was that the message was a throw away point.  Most of the presentations were focused on time to market, and product quality and making engineers' jobs easier, which is pretty much the same thing that everyone else discusses in the semiconductor/hardware industries.   I let it go because, after all, the client is always right, aren't they?

In 2008, however, the automotive market starting hitting the skids and everyone was cost cutting, even high-flying Toyota.  Among the cuts were purchases of design tool licenses, including VaST which devastated a lot of the companies in VaST's niche, including CoWare and Synopsys' Virtio.  My relationship with VaST was discontinued in April 2008 and I had failed to win my point about the importance of safety and the bottom line.  This is my understanding of what transpired after that point.

(NOTE:  I know the publicized accelerator problems were mechanical, not electronic in nature, but subsequent recalls have been based on electronic/software issues, especially after Steve Wozniak himself brought the issue forward)

For 2008 and 2009 Toyota made do without the VaST technology as cost cutting became the important issue. Yes it made the engineering easier, but engineers get paid pretty well so they need to work a little harder, don't you think?  That would turn out to be the years for the development of the 2009 and 2010 models.  Just a few weeks ago, VaST was sold at an undisclosed (and apparently very low price), along with CoWare to Synopsys giving the latter a virtual stranglehold on the entire market.

I say all this and take responsibility for what happened because I want to make a point.  Some people want to know why I seem so angry and confrontational about the changes in media and communication paradigms.  This situation with the Prius is why.

As professional communicators, we have a responsibility to look beyond the trite marketing messages and ancient sales philosophies that our clients and employers cling to and see to the real potential, both good and bad, of what they are creating.  We are the people that create the vision and if we don't have it, people can die.  

I'm not being over dramatic here.  Take a look at what is playing out on Capitol Hill this week.  Look at the pictures of the charred wrecks.  Toyota could have avoided this if they had the right tools for the job, and maybe they were short sighted, but the message that was given to them was that we could make their jobs easier and maybe make their products cheaper, but we just don't have the research in hand to prove that last point... so let's just go with it makes an engineer's job easier.

The research that needs to be done to prove the hard bottom-line and human safety of the systems rolling out the door is done by marketing and communications people.  If companies don't want to invest in that kind of effort, that's on them, but as professionals in the business we need to make them understand what kind of hell they may be unleashing if they do.  And we need to be ready to walk away if they won't listen.

Synopsys now has that responsibility.  They have the technology to stop this thing from happening again, and it is the responsibility of the marketing people to find the right message and It isn't time to market and it isn't ROI. I have every confidence in their ability to do exactly what needs to be done.  But I reiterate: People's lives depend on it.

What we do is neither inconsequential nor should it be done on the cheap.

I'm taking some days off next week.  This has been a marathon week because the world is changing faster than I can type.   I'll leave you with an often unremembered quote from Peter Drucker:

"Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two--and only two--basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business."