Toyota’s Meltdown: Hearing, Feeling, Seeing, What About Our Farm Equipment?

Toyota Farm Equip 500Seeing Akio Toyoda testifying before the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform committee was truly magical.  I could hardly believe my eyes and ears to see this Japanese corporate giant saying he was sorry for the safety problems American consumers have with their Toyota vehicles.  I had always had a deep respect for Japanese automakers and the Toyota problems have simply shattered that ideal.

At the same time I was watching the hearing I was writing an article about the “New Generation” John Deere tractors, which were introduced in 1960, the 1010, 2010, 3010 and 4010.  Simply put these tractors changed American agriculture.  I am writing a five part series this year about those tractors for Heritage Iron magazine out of Illinois.  So when I do that, I often have the privilege of speaking with retired John Deere engineers who are still living in the United States.  At the time of these tractors introduction in 1960, they were mere kids.

So with the Toyota chairman on the television and one of these retired engineers on the end of my phone, his comments were telling.  He was relaying to me some common engineering terms, which tractor engineers have to think about when designing farm tractors.  He veered from the script during my conversation and said something about how he couldn’t believe the engineers at Toyota had failed in the design process with regard to those sticky accelerators.  He told me when they designed these “New Generation” tractors and the tractors after that time when something failed it was meant to quit or go to zero.  This retired engineer who designed some of the most remarkable John Deere tractors ever made was simply stating the obvious.  He could not believe that Toyota engineers had designed something that when it failed, it accelerated, its failure possibly causing catastrophic results.

It got me to thinking. Can’t the same thing happen on today’s modern farm equipment?  With the specialized computer circuitry and micro processors embedded within every facet of 2010 farm machinery, does it present the specter of a Toyota type meltdown?  The simple answer is I dunno.  However the greater answer with regard to our farm machinery questions and ultimately the efficiency in our farm fields is much wider in scope.  In the realm of present-day events, does Toyota’s reliance on a computerized control for their sticky accelerator resemble anything you may have had experience with on present-day farm equipment?

It is an interesting question and one that I can answer with a resounding yes!  However, it is always easy to yell fire in a crowded theater especially when that tractor is not working or that combine has a problem.  Keep in mind that my retired John Deere engineer friend told me last week.  He told me that at the time when John Deere was developing the early front-wheel-drive (assist) prototypes they had some big problems with farmer perceptions.  Simply put when farmers drove the tractor’s there was a certain hearing, seeing and feeling to it.  The new front wheel drive tractors at the time pulled more efficiently and didn’t spin going around the corner.  He told me that farmers complained because the wheels didn’t spin at the time.  Of course they didn’t spin because they were working more efficiently but at the end of the day that didn’t matter because farmers perception were it was not as good because the front wheels were spinning.  Translate that into 2010 where we have automatic steering and guidance and you can see that perceptions are changing.  My question is within this long horizon of change in our tractors and combines has the embedded technology within them overshot some safety issues?

As most of you know I also write all the farm machinery reviews for Country Guide magazine here in Canada.  I just finished reviewing new auto steer products and I’ve written another piece regarding the total impact of that on modern agriculture.  I was quite taken aback when I was told the temptation to get off a moving tractor or combine is much greater now because of guidance and auto steer.  I must admit I have done it too.  Since I was young there have been times when I slipped off the moving tractor in first gear to look back at a problem with the drill or some other type of implement.  Now with auto steering guidance, getting off a moving farm vehicle is so much easier.  No amounts of beeper warnings can cover up human nature.

When I first mentioned these types of issues several years ago in this column I got a note from a farmer in Minnesota who told me his brand-new tractor stopped cold at the busy intersection near his farm.  The onboard computer had shut down and the only way to move that thing was to pull it to the side of the road with a chain attached to another tractor.  We all have other examples of the same thing, which boil down to computerized technology overriding a human’s ability to over ride it.  When Rhonda Smith, a Lexus owner from Tennessee had both feet on the break pad trying to stop her Toyota while it wildly accelerated, it boils down to the same thing.

That is not a condemnation of modern farm machinery.  It is only an admission that the advancement of computerized technology within our equipment needs to be balanced with the hearing feeling and seeing dynamic which my retired engineer from John Deere told me about the other day. With Toyota currently in freefall, I’m trusting there are no farm equipment similarities.  We have to get real with these things, technology is great, but human nature at the end of the day, will always rule.