The auto industry is leading the world in tackling the millennium computer bug, but it is still not doing enough.
Gwynneth Flower, head of the UK government's Action 2000 millennium bug campaign, told an audience of executives in July to learn from the auto industry.
She complimented the auto industry for the way it is tackling the problem.
But she warned her audience of the power of software glitches. An unrelated software problem at German lock supplier Kiekert AG shut down Ford production lines for several days in June (story, Page 9).
Chrysler had already been working on solutions for several years when it tried an experiment in 1997. It shut down its Sterling Heights assembly plant in Michigan, turned clocks forward to New Year's Eve 1999, and watched the results.
'We got lots of surprises,' said Chrysler Chairman Bob Eaton. 'Nobody could get out of the plant. The security system shut down. And you couldn't have paid people because the time-clock didn't work.'
This year Chrysler will spend $55 million on the year 2000 problem. General Motors, checking more than two billion lines of computer code for its office computers alone, is spending more than $360 million.
At Ford, 'Cost is simply not an issue,' said George Surdu, head of the company's global year 2000 effort 'We are spending what is
John Devine, Ford's chief financial officer, heads the year 2000 steering committee. Every business unit is represented. Ford began preparations in the late 1980s when it specified that new computer systems had to be millennium bug-proof. In 1996, realizing there were still massive problems, Ford appointed Surdu to his post and ordered action.
'I'm not saying we started early enough,' said Surdu. 'We had some catching up to do and we've done it. For companies starting late, it is a real challenge.'
Year 2000 glitches aren't waiting for New Year's Eve 1999. They are already showing up. This spring, Rover's computers refused to issue cars with their six-year warranties. The machines believed the firm was turning out cars that needed guarantees in the year 1900.
That was easily solved, but it warned of future problems.
In the USA, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors joined forces to pool information and ensure that suppliers are compliant. The suppliers' Automotive Industry Action Group has sent out some 72,000 assessments to suppliers around the world.
In Europe, the industry has been slower to organize and less candid about its preparations. UK-based technology consultant SRI International warns that over 70 percent of German companies say they don't expect to be ready. In the UK, the SMMT industry association is worried that 'members are not aware and, in some instances, are ignoring potential problems,' says Chris Williams of SSA, another consultant.
The automakers have tried telling their Tier 1 suppliers to make sure the supply chain below them is ready, but the strategy may not work.
'Many Tier 1 suppliers work on the basis that if you have a problem, you solve it tomorrow,' said Williams. 'You buy a solution.'
John Woodset, technology director at chip manufacturer Intel, told a meeting at the UK Parliament this summer that 'some 64 percent of the installed base of PCs in Europe are not compliant. That includes the 486 PCs.'
Less than 500 days remain in this millennium. 'It's not too late,' said Williams, 'but you have got to face your responsibilities, now.'