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Issue #1615      October 23, 2013

Culture & Life

Built-in obsolescence

When my wife and I bought our present car, a second-hand Rav-4, we were a little perturbed by the high mileage it had already clocked up. But asking around among friends and neighbours produced a universal comment: “Oh, but it’s a Toyota”. The implication was that vehicles built by Toyota were better built than most others and would therefore be able to knock up a high mileage and still be in good shape.

I am not mechanically minded so I cannot comment on whether this assessment of Toyota is accurate or not. Over the years we have had numerous vehicles, Japanese, European and American, and they have all had their good and bad points.

I took a small French car and a small German car around outback NSW and South Australia on two splendid motoring holidays. But the air-cooled engine of the German car was effectively ruined by the red dust of NSW. Even then, both cars performed better than my gas-guzzling Ford Fairmont. One month after its 12-month warranty ran out, things literally started to fall apart on it: the door handle, the rear window, even the liberal amount of chrome it carried. I was glad to get rid of the monster.

I had run up against the mainstay of the auto industry, especially the US auto industry: built-in obsolescence.

Cars can be made to last, but US cars especially are made to be replaced. Every year there is a new model with differently shaped tail-lights or a stereo system that plays music when you tell it to, saving you the fatigue of pressing a button. Each new model is accompanied by an advertising campaign to persuade drivers of the social, financial and cultural necessity of “upgrading” to the new model, even though there is nothing wrong with the car they already drive.

This wasteful process is meant to keep the US auto industry chugging along, meeting an artificial “demand” that is purely illusory. For as I said, cars can be made to last, and the place that proved it is –ironically enough – the USA.

Have you ever noticed, while watching US TV shows set in New York, just how many yellow taxi-cabs there are? On a busy street they generally outnumber all the other cars put together. And they are all identical. You don’t see some with fins and some without, some with lots of chrome and some with none. No, they are all clones of one another. The very opposite of standard US auto industry practice. And there is a sound economic reason for this: the Yellow Cab Company makes its own taxis.

The Yellow Cab Company, like its predecessor the Checker Cab Co, has its own factory, manufacturing cabs for its own use. Its cabs are made to last – there is no advantage to the Yellow Cab Company in having its vehicles fall apart in 12 months. On the contrary, the longer they run without giving trouble the better. Yellow Cab engines have been known to go four times round the clock and still be running.

Unlike ordinary US cars, Yellow Cabs are built high off the ground, to protect their suspension from being damaged by New York’s notorious potholes. Fashion is not a factor in the cabs’ design so they are purely functional in appearance, free of extremes like tailfins or other adornments. They are all identical so replacement panels are readily available. The interior lining is not made of the usual pressed cardboard, but steel, so damage from kicking by unruly or drunken passengers is negligible.

The cabs are so well made and so mechanically reliable that many passengers have sought to buy them for private use, and in fact the company yielded to these requests and has made a number of its cabs (not painted yellow, though) available for private buyers. This is not the Yellow Cab Company’s core business, however. That is still making taxis for its own use.

Ironically, by rejecting built-in obsolescence, relying on functionality in design and making its cars to last, the Yellow Cab Company is actually a model for the car industry under socialism. The company is probably not in a position to replicate an entire production line and sell a fully-functioning “yellow cab” factory to a socialist country. But the principles on which it functions are available and certainly applicable to not just the auto industry under socialism.

Because they are so well made, a Yellow Cab is probably more expensive to produce than a standard US car. But they last a lot longer, they do not change every year so there is no R&D cost to be factored in, and there is no massive advertising budget to be added on the cost of manufacturing.

So while the US auto industry is in an economic decline, a decline that affects all the car companies world-wide that imitate the US industry, there is a potent lesson staring the world in the face from the USA’s own Yellow Cab Company, a lesson that shouts of the advantages of manufacturing for use as opposed to manufacturing for marketing.

The chaos and internal warfare that marks capitalist production cannot – except in exceptional circumstances such as at the Yellow Cab Company – allow for the widespread application of production for use. Only with the rejection of “market forces” and their replacement by a planned economy, can we hope to see sensible, rational manufacturing practices introduced on a widespread basis.

But even in those socialist countries that have tried to establish a non-military auto industry, the purchase of car factories from the capitalist auto industry seems to me to be ill-advised. Basic to those factories’ output is built-in obsolescence, cheap production and a relatively short life for the vehicle. Socialism would be better off taking as its model the Yellow Cab Company of New York, not for their business practices, of course, but for their manufacturing practices.

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