Consumer Reports, Ford and the Home Run Swing

Last week, Consumer Reports released its annual auto reliability survey and, as usual, it was picked up by every media outlet on the planet. Unfortunately, the headline in almost all of those stories referenced Ford, whose reliability rating dropped dramatically, from 10th to 20th overall. Since Ford has been steadily climbing in the CR ratings the last few years (and is clearly the most stable domestic car company) many folks were caught off-guard, and a few dour pundits even launched into renewed predictions of gloom for the US auto industry.

I prefer to take the opposite view here. If you take the time to read beyond the headline, you’ll see that Ford’s drop in customer satisfaction was directly related to hiccups with three models that were either new, extensively redesigned or featured new technology.  As the CR reporters note, this isn’t surprising: they regularly observe similar reliability issues with other companies’ new models or technologies, which is why they advise readers to wait until the model’s second year before buying. Fair enough advice, I guess, and something I’ll keep in mind next time I look for a new car.

However, from a bigger picture standpoint, I like that Ford is being aggressive in their product and technology development. I think it’s great that they aren’t just doing the same old, safe thing — because that’s what got the U.S. auto industry into trouble in the first place.  In fact, the same could be said for the US manufacturing as a whole.  If you’re not innovative, you’re quickly irrelevant.

But innovation isn’t always pretty. Look at any paradigm-shattering new product or technology and you’ll likely discover a rocky beginning. Certainly the career of Steve Jobs bears that out – early Macs had problems galore, Pixar and its CGI animation systems nearly went bankrupt prior to “Toy Story” and, more recently, first-generation iPhones had all sorts of issues. Of course, the iPhone’s problems were nothing compared to those of the earliest cellular phones, which were infamous for their limited range, miniscule battery life and god-awful, static-from-outer space reception.

Nevertheless, the companies behind these products – including Apple, Pixar and Motorola – stuck with their troubled-but-still promising technologies and ultimately did well. And it wasn’t because they played it safe.

So, here’s to you Ford. While the new MyFord Touch system or the automated-manual transmission may or may not turn out to be the next iPad, at least you had the cojones to swing for the fences. After all, that’s the only way to hit a home run.