LONDON - The old story goes that Microsoft mogul Bill Gates once said: 'If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that achieved 1,000 miles to the gallon.'
A General Motors spokesman supposedly responded: 'Yes, but would you want your car to crash twice a day?'
That humor will be lost on automotive industry personnel sitting at their computer terminals on Dec. 31 while the rest of the world lights fireworks.
Europe's auto industry is expected to spend up to $1 billion to ensure that its computer operations run smoothly into the new millennium, according to estimates.
GM and Ford executives estimate that Europe's share of each of their worldwide Y2K bills is roughly $100 million. Fiat S.p.A. spent a similar amount, while PSA/Peugeot-Citroen SA says it has invested $85 million to fix its millennium bug program.
Despite their efforts to kill the bug, hundreds of top automotive executives and information technology teams will see in the new year in company control centers. They will wait anxiously for signals from around the world that the thousands of systems they have upgraded are working as planned.
'The industry has needed this like a hole in the head,' says one senior figure who will observe the midnight deadline in an information technology monitoring office in Germany.
'`Celebration' is not a word in my vocabulary right now,' he says. 'The champagne stays on ice until we see this thing through.'
NO FRIENDS OF BILL
Many automotive executives are angry that computer problems have blighted their professional lives as the new millennium approaches - not least those at GM.
Y2K system updating has reached into every corner of the automotive industry. Even import networks with comparatively modest market shares have had to spend up to $10 million in each main market to eradicate the bug.
In the United Kingdom, for example, Volkswagen Group has spent $9.5 million to ensure that the bug does not affect its systems.
'It is ridiculous that we have invested heavily in computer systems and have now had to spend more money with the computer industry to sort out a problem they created,' says Richard Ide, VW Group managing director in Britain.
Mitsubishi in the United Kingdom also has spent $9.5 million on an upgrade of its information technology systems, though these were due for replacement anyway, says spokesman David Miles.
Mercedes-Benz Great Britain quoted no figure 'because this is ongoing. But it does run into millions,' says a spokesman.
Suzuki Great Britain, which registers 1 percent of Suzuki sales worldwide, will spend more than $3 million on new hardware and $1.6 million on programs during the last six months of 1999.
'We now have a completely clean sheet with technology that is compliant with absolutely everything,' says spokesman David Farquhar.
Before the merger of Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz into DaimlerChrysler last year, the United Kingdom import operations for Chrysler, Jeep and Daihatsu shared a single information technology facility. Now a new system has been installed at a cost of $8 million.
'Luckily the previous system was due for replacement,' says spokesman Simon Mall.
Here is a rundown of bug fighting among Europe's top makers.
FORD: SMOOTH SAILING
In Europe Ford has spent around $100 million to verify operations against Y2K problems, says Peter Erbert, program manager for Y2K and EMU for Ford of Europe. Erbert will spend the New Year with up to 40 colleagues in the Cologne, Germany, control center. He admits to misgivings about what will happen after midnight. Information on problems - some of which may be routine and have nothing to do with Y2K - must be handled intelligently, he says.
'Unless we control the information, matters may get out of hand. Remember the Chicago Stock Exchange during the last crash? The computer took all the bad news and everything turned into `Sell,' which made things even worse.
'The danger is that we get inundated. So my prime purpose is to detect and fix. We must understand what the problems are, and whether they are just routine.'
The Cologne control center and others at key locations around the world will report to a Detroit master center, but Erbert is skeptical about the usefulness of the information that may flow in.
'The date will change first in New Zealand, and that may be the first place to give us a clue on what may happen. But I submit that if the power fails in New Zealand, it will not tell us anything about the risk we are running in Europe.'
After the date switch, Erbert's team will work through the headquarters building to test every communications and business system and utility function. Teams will carry out the same checks in every Ford plant, and on Jan. 1 every control of every machine will be tested.
In Europe, GM has reviewed more than 27,000 supplier locations for Y2K preparedness, says James Dunn, general director of Y2K/EMU programs for GM international operations in Zurich. 'As a result we don't expect any significant disruption from our supply base as a result of Y2K problems. Similar focus has been put on our work with our dealers.
'With more than 3,500 retailers - Opel, Vauxhall and North American vehicles in more than 20 countries across Europe - and upward of 1,000 Saab retailers worldwide, this has been a huge task,' Dunn adds. 'The overall aim has been to ensure that our dealers are well positioned to deal internally with any problems and also to equip them to help consumers who are initially unsure about Y2K problems.
'Our plants, too, have been meticulously prepared,' Dunn says. 'Throughout the program our overriding aim has been to ensure the continued safety and security of all our employees and to make sure our customers won't be inconvenienced.'
Where will Dunn see in the new millennium? 'As part of our total contingency planning effort we'll have several hundred GM people worldwide standing by in the event of an unforeseen Y2K failure,' he says. 'I'll be in the command center in Rüsselsheim, Germany, though I'm not expecting to be very busy.'
Not everything associated with the Y2K bug is necessarily negative.
According to Erbert of Ford of Europe, there are several positive aspects gained by the effort to ensure that the automaker's computer systems will function properly.
'At no time previously had management got a better view of how deeply information technology has penetrated their business,' he says. 'Senior management previously had little awareness of what information technology does.
'Also, as a global company, Ford for the first time has a much better understanding of its inventory of systems on a worldwide basis. Through the Y2K program, we have learned an awful lot about the complexity and interdependence of our business processes through information technology.'