Automobile dependability hits all-time high: JD Powers

Are lean methodologies and advanced manufacturing technologies finally making a dent in car quality efforts?

Lately, it has gotten harder for cars to break down. Quality is better. And you can thank the sour economy, at least in part, for the improvements in auto manufacturing.

The latest J.D. Power and Associates 2012 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study finds that vehicle dependability across all brands is at all-time highs. Cars just don't have as many problems as they used to.

The study, based on responses from more than 31,000 original owners of 2009 model-year vehicles after three years of ownership, measures problems experienced during the previous 12 months by those original owners. Overall dependability is determined by the level of problems experienced per 100 vehicles, with a lower score reflecting higher quality.

The dependability of three-year-old vehicles has improved by 19 problems per 100 vehicles from the 2011 dependability study, to an average of 132 problems.

Contrast that with the 1998 dependability study, which found an industry average of 278 problems per 100 vehicles. The most reliable car in 1998 had 92 problems per 100 vehicles -- comparable to this year's average for all brands.

Why the increase in quality?  An increasing focus on quality across all processes, says J.D. Powers. As the consultancy's automotive vice president, Dave Sargent, told AP: "We don't have total clunkers like we used to." AP's Dee-Ann Durbin also observes that "Detroit's three automakers have narrowed the quality gap considerably against brands from other countries. In 1998, J.D. Power found 42 more problems per 100 vehicles with GM, Ford and Chrysler cars and trucks. This year the gap had narrowed to just 13."

Credit the sour economy of recent years as well. It's no coincidence that quality reached record heights for automobiles produced in 2009, during the trough of the recent recession (and GM and Chrysler's government bailouts). As Durbin explains in her article, GM, Ford and Chrysler, seeing the handwriting on the wall with a consumer shift away from trucks and sport utility vehicles to smaller cars and car-based crossover SUVs, began to pour more research dollars from trucks to cars after years of neglect.

There also has more widespread adoption of lean manufacturing principles at US auto sites, which emphasizes building cars faster, better and cheaper. Technology, from robotics to enhance precision, allow for greater flexibility in adapting to market changes, and achieving a more efficient supply chain management. In 2007, GM launched a global lean production system, which not only achieves faster production cycle times, but also encourages a more cooperative culture between managers and workers.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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