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We put things to the test, to discover their limits and minimize human error in their design. Yet sometimes the test itself is imperfect. Like the product it tests, it’s more prone than we’d like to admit to human error and inexperience.
One supremely stressful testing ground is preparing for war. Ricochet member Percival, who has good reason to know about these things, said in a recent thread, “When you test a new weapons system, you generally do it against a target that you have absolute control over. You don’t do it in or near populated areas. You set up a lot of cameras at different angles so you can record everything that happens”. Engineers know from generations of hard experience that tests don’t always catch everything, though, and the reasons are sometimes only obvious in retrospect.
Anti-nuclear people have long thought that Americans in WWII were cruel and reckless to unleash poisonous fallout via the A-bombings. But fallout, which is essentially radioactive burnt soot, was an unpleasant surprise to Manhattan Project scientists, who expected the vast majority of deaths to be caused by direct blast. Based on the well-instrumented, carefully done Trinity test, they didn’t expect much lingering residual radiation afterward. But that’s because Trinity vaporized sand and rocks, not cities of wood and fabric.
With the war over, and a worldwide economic boom slowly gathering strength, people were hungry for growth after decades of depression and conflict. New industries flourished, like electronics, chemicals, plastics, and a newcomer, atomic energy. In general, testing for medical safety was primitive by our standards. This would change.
Thalidomide was developed in Germany and almost exported to the USA until the FDA blocked it, because of an alarming number of birth defects and mutations. As many as 40% of babies born to women who took Thalidomide died within a year. There’d been no wide-scale human test, and none involving pregnant women. The test was, none of the rats died. In 1957 that was enough. By 1962, the uproar over Thalidomide ensured that pharmaceutical testing would be much more demanding. By the way, today it’s an approved, respected drug for certain serious conditions, such as leprosy; but it is kept away from women of childbearing age.
You’d think nothing like this could happen again. In 1975, ads proclaimed “Proctor and Gamble, and a woman gynecologist introduce a new tampon. Remember, we call it Rely”. Rely hadn’t been widely tested because legally, it didn’t have to be. It was classified as not much different from facial tissue, not as a quasi-medical product that required testing. It was, in the language of the time, “grandfathered in”. But despite its rosy, pseudo-feminist branding, Rely was a disaster that caused severe problems, called toxic shock, for thousands of women, with consequences that included amputation of hands and limbs. By the end of the ‘70s it was banned.
What about other industries? There’s a reasonable temptation to believe that Detroit’s half-century of quality problems have been caused by rushing out untested junk, but that’s seldom actually been true.
GM was always in a hurry to market this year’s flashy new stuff—“Patented C-Thru Glass, 20% More Transparent!”—and for decades, people traded cars in much more frequently than in our adult lifetimes. Few expected to hold onto them for long, so why prioritize better appearance and performance five years down the road? But the Germans, the Swedes, and the Japanese did. They didn’t have special testing or magic quality control technology that we lacked. They knew that avoiding rusting chrome, snapped torsion bars, or faded paint required long-duration tests that weren’t rushed.
One of the most notorious cases, the Chevy Vega subcompact, had a big test program by the standards of the dawn of the Seventies. But some of the key things GM needed to know were obscured by long-established testing procedures that babied the $100,000 a copy, hand-built prototypes. Drivers meticulously checked fluid levels and tire pressures before every drive in a way that few American consumers would. So something like the inadequacy of a one-gallon radiator wasn’t obvious until the car was sold to the public.
Ironically, GM’s wealth and size actually worked against it. Smaller manufacturers like Daimler-Benz built six prototypes of a new design and ran them for 80,000 miles each before signing off; 480,000 test miles in total. General Motors could afford to build 100 test cars, run each for 10,000 miles, and boast of a 1 million total mile test program completed in one eighth the time. Clever! But maybe not so clever, because time is exactly what was needed. Common sense tells you that the car with 80,000 miles gives you more information, more confidence about durability and wear than eight 10,000 miles ones put together.
Some gigantic investments were never tested before the money was spent. In a violation of the (then admittedly limited) traditions of the manned space program, the space shuttle’s first flight in 1981 was manned. Forty years later this decision still causes some head-scratching around NASA. The pilot and commander of that first flight later said flatly that they would have aborted it within seconds of liftoff if they’d realized that sheer sound pressure of the launch threatened to damage vital flight control surfaces, to an unexpected degree that the agency would mitigate in later launches. There was no compelling reason for this, except that at some point in the mid-seventies a test flight was chopped to help the budget make it through another year.
The Department of Defense is not exempt from human error either. During the Reagan buildup, smaller but appropriately lethal nuclear warheads were designed to fit shorter range and cruise missiles. The bombs worked just fine when they were carried in bomb bays inside the plane (modern weapons platforms have various jazzy new terms for this, but I’ll stick to familiar ones). Great! But somebody at DoD forgot that in certain uses, the missiles were to be carried underwing. They hadn’t been tested for extreme cold and needed to be redesigned to still work when it was 70 below with a wind blast of 550 miles an hour. Note that the test itself wasn’t faulty. They simply hadn’t asked all the right questions, and it ended up costing millions of dollars.
But those losses are nothing compared to the consequences of a test that was not only faulty, but outright fraudulent. Volkswagen, still associated in pop culture with hippies and love bugs, did something distinctly unlovable; they realized their diesel-engine cars couldn’t pass standard US pollution tests, so they gamed the tests, in essence creating cheating software that would recognize when a test was being done, and cut the performance of the engine just enough to pass it. Amazingly, they didn’t get caught by Big Eco, or the archipelago of federal and state agencies that monitor these things, but by students at a small, unfashionable college who couldn’t explain nagging inconsistencies in their attempts to verify the test numbers. Otherwise, they might well have gotten away with it.
This little stunt, gaming the test, will cost VW a cool $20 billion all told, in fines, lawsuits, and replaced cars. I’m not inclined to cry any Adam Smith tears for the poor Germans. They lied to America. But they’ll pass the one test that really counts: they’ll survive to be allowed to continue to sell cars in the American market.Published in