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Book review: Common Sense Not Required, by Evan Boberg

Common Sense Not Required: an engineer's experiences at Chrysler, without any flattery

Good books written by auto industry insiders are fairly rare, and most are written by executives: Carl Breer (Chrysler), Lee Iaccoca (Chrysler and Ford), John DeLorean (GM), and Pehr Gyllenhammar (Volvo) come to mind, along with perhaps Bob Lutz. But few insiders below the executive level have written about their experiences. The only one I know about is Common Sense Not Required, a new, self-published book by suspension engineer Evan Boberg.

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Evan Boberg has a reputation for being a skilled and honest engineer, so his book has some credibility. Because he describes quite a bit of his work on the Jeep triumvirate of the 1980s and 1990s - Wrangler, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee - this book may be quite interesting to owners of those vehicles. Those who are heavily into trucks, off-roading, or any type of vehicle suspension design will almost certainly find the book to be an excellent buy, especially if they get the electronic version (a mere $5!).

Part of the motivation for writing was, no doubt, the reaction of most people when they find out that Evan was an auto engineer: asking what it was like, and assuming that he was very smart to have worked in that highly competitive industry. However, as Evan illustrates, it's quite possible to be a successful idiot in the auto trade.

The opening chapters are a mix of the lessons Mr. Boberg learned early in his life, and some ideas about finding a good mechanic which may or may not be valid. We suspect Common Sense Not Required serves two purposes: to answer the questions everyone asks him, as an ex-Chrysler engineer, and to expound with illustrations some of the ideas he espouses. Hence, the book is partly expose, and partly autobiography. The non-automotive autobiography part is relatively small, and largely confined to the first chapter or two. We follow Evan's life through repairing cars, and deciding that he should become an auto engineer because there was so much room for improvement - a feeling shared by many auto mechanics, we suspect.

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Aside from a very small amount of autobiographical material and opinions on mechanics, schools, and hybrids, Common Sense Not Required is a hard-hitting expose of Chrysler Corporation and the auto industry in general that shows both its genius and the foolishness. Mr. Boberg himself started as a contract employee at General Motors. From there, he moved to American Motors, which was small enough to avoid heavy bureaucracy, and where everyone could personally talk to engineering chief Francois Castaing, who was to transform Chrysler's engineering department to match AMC's (the official history credits Honda with providing the model for the new engineering design system). At AMC, Evan had a number of interesting projects, including fixing problems on the Jeep Cherokee which were the result of other engineers' foolishness.

Not long after Evan started at AMC, the company was swallowed up by Chrysler. In the process, former Chrysler engineers who had left to get away from that company's crushing, egocentric bureaucracy ended up back at Chrysler again. Some Chrysler projects, including a Dakota-based SUV, were dropped in favor of AMC designs. Evan supports rumors that an existing K-based large car was replaced by a new AMC design, influenced by the Eagle Premier, which itself was heavily influenced by Renault (we've heard that the same happened to the Neon, with the design team switched to mainly former AMC employees).

Evan continued to work mainly on Jeeps, and tells the story of some very clever Jeep projects that never saw the light of day, as well as some kludges that did. Fortunately for the reader, most of the book is concerned with various engineering projects that Evan worked on, some of which you can drive today, and some of which you cannot. There is quite a bit of educational material there for those who are not convinced by Mr. Boberg's more political or personal discussions.

The picture of Chrysler engineering, as painted by Common Sense Not Required, is a company with some highly skilled engineers, and some very egocentric engineers and managers with little sense. (To be fair, he acknowledges that this is probably not unique to Chrysler.) As in many bureaucracies, Chrysler is portrayed as fairly inefficient at dealing with people who are not competent or who are troublemakers: it simply sent them out of the way to the Liberty Group. Those who know the Liberty Group from the amazing MAGIC engine or the Intrepid ESX hybrid series will be very disappointed on reading the sections related to Mr. Boberg's employment there. He writes that these projects were impractical at best and fakes at worst, with numbers plucked from thin air and implausible assumptions. Common Sense Not Required claims to have the astonishing inside story on these inventions, and given that none went anywhere, and that another insider has vouched for Mr. Boberg's character, we're willing to believe him.

Mr. Boberg has little patience for boondoggles, within or outside of Chrysler, believes that the government's alternative-fuels programs are wastes of money, and has some evidence to support him. Likewise, he devotes a chapter to exposing hybrid vehicles - though he later admitted, in an addendum sent to buyers by e-mail, that Toyota's new Prius made him rethink his conclusion that hybrids would never be more efficient than simple weight reduction and similar techniques (which, along with brake regeneration and electric power, are used on current production hybrids). Perhaps GM and Chrysler are finding out that hybrids are not as sweet as once thought: the Ram hybrid will only be a niche vehicle, with about one hundred being produced for fleet buyers only.

If there is a weakness in the book, it is in the large doses we receive of Evan Boberg's personal political and philosophical opinions, but spreading them is one of the reasons he wrote the book - and since we appreciate the latter, we can tolerate the former. Just remember Albert Einstein's warnings that being a great physicist does not make one an expert in everything (Thomas Edison's life and death are also illustrations of that). The use of pseudonyms to protect the incompetent is unusual (competent people tend to have their real names given), and insiders may find some of them easy to penetrate and rather clever.

Overall, Common Sense Not Required is an eye-opening book for anyone who is interested in AMC and Chrysler of late 1980s and 1990s, suspension design, or hybrid vehicles in general. Most of all, we would hope that it become required reading for all Chrysler managers and executives. It's a perspective some of them may share, and others may not be aware of - but it's certainly one that they should all see, so they can rise above the idiocy implict in most bureaucracies, perhaps see their own egocentrism and "blind spots," and work to keep engineers like Evan Boberg engaged, useful, and, most of all, working at Chrysler with common sense and uncommon skill.

Our recommendation, in case you couldn't tell, is to buy the book. It's inexpensive and eye-opening, and it's a good read as well.

Buy this book!

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