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SUNDAY, AUGUST 26, 2007
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U.S. slow to change inspection technology

Since the Aug. 1 Minneapolis bridge collapse, the public has been astonished at the lack of technology involved in bridge inspections.

It’s a particular concern for bridges that barely pass muster, including a pair in Hartselle and a pair in Courtland. Bridge inspectors are rating the bridges on what they can see, feel and — with the help of a decidedly low-tech hammer — hear.

What about deterioration that is not so obvious? Problems, for example, that exist under the asphalt or within the supports?

Steven Fenves, guest researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told me it’s a major problem, especially for bridges built before the mid-1960s. Even the best inspector cannot access, and therefore cannot evaluate, many important bridge components.

The technology is available, he said, but a huge disincentive keeps entrepreneurs from bringing safety-enhancing products to market. The average time lag between an innovation and its adoption by governmental entities — like the Alabama Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration — is 17 years.

If you invent the perfect mousetrap, you can borrow the money to build a prototype and hope to start making sales next year. Let’s say you invent the perfect bridge-inspection device today, which would save human lives rather than ending the lives of rodents. You borrow a million bucks to build a prototype and market it.

Using Fenves’ numbers, you can hope to make your first sale in 2024. Assuming you can find a patient lender and a 9-percent interest rate, you’ll be paying $9,600 a month for 204 months, bringing your total payment to about $2 million. All in the hopes that a bureaucracy will see the merit in your innovation, and can find the tax dollars to buy it.

Is it any wonder that bridge inspections are low tech?

Car-repair conflict

Gone are the days when Dad could pull out a wrench and bond with his child in the backyard while explaining how to repair the Chevy.

Computerization increasingly controls automobile systems, and that creates a problem not only for dads, but also for independent mechanics.

Computerization provides benefits in the form of increased fuel efficiency and improved safety, but it also gives auto manufacturers the ability to hinder non-dealerships from making repairs.

The Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association has a vested interest in the issue; repairs that can be made only by a dealership are repairs that its members cannot make. There are, it says, 4.2 million cars in Alabama, and only 355 dealerships.

Its solution is a bill in Congress that it dubs the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act. The Act would mandate that car companies provide to independent mechanics full access to all tools and service information needed to repair motor vehicles.

The issue promises to be thorny. On the one hand, a free market should provide incentives to manufacturers to build easily repaired cars. Manufacturers also have some legitimate trade secret concerns.

On the other hand, there aren’t that many manufacturers, and they benefit from steering repairs to their dealerships.

Contact Eric Fleischauer at eric@decaturdaily.com.

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