My previous posts have established by now the idea that the automotive industry is highly technical, an idea that I think is not generally contested. I discussed in my last post some of the diverse communities I tenuously belong to by virtue of simply having regular contact with them. Though much of this contact is verbal (face to face personnel share a more social aspect of the discourse) the majority of inter-industry communication is done in writing, whether it be mailed letters, e-mails, catalogs, price schedules, etc. Because I had mentioned that I have to be Hazmat certified I thought it would be interesting to include a snapshot of an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) to demonstrate how written communication works in a community whose regulations are extreme. However the shortest MSDS I can find is for basic motor oil and it is four pages long. This may seem excessive, but the Data Sheet has all the information needed to handle the material in the event of an accident, information that is only useful if the person who has temporary custody of the material is familiar with the language. That language is so highly technical, however that I thought something a bit lighter would… how do I say this… not put you to sleep.
The area that would best demonstrate how writing is fundamental to the automotive industry is the parts cataloging system. The reason this is such a crucial example of writing is that, in order to be effective, it must be universally understood. The nomenclature for auto parts is interesting, but only insofar as the terms that were arbitrarily selected in some distant past are the commonly accepted terms community-wide. This has the benefit of allowing fairly open access to the automotive genre, because if someone unfamiliar with the part they’re presently concerned about discovers the “proper” name for it, he or she can go to almost any professional facility and get more efficient assistance (especially in the rare, but very real, case of a shop attempting to bilk a customer out of money for unnecessary repairs). A simple, organized system for auto parts names reduces the power imbalance between experts and customers, but it also helps make repairs quick and efficient.
A systemic vocabulary is only as useful as it is available. The point of access for these classifications is the parts catalog, which can be an irreplaceable resource for those in my position. The most interesting part of a parts catalog (and I can only really speak for those within General Motors’ scope, which is a genre-related discussion better left for another time) is that is primarily text based. A conception (if imagining such things is indeed common… which I highly doubt) is that the way to find a part is to look at exploded illustrations of vehicles and “point where it hurts.” Such a practice is not an effective tactic, and gets less effective as automotive technology advances. The reason for this is that the average vehicle is comprised of thousands of parts participating in a dozen separate systems, each of which gets more complex as technology improves. A simple exploded view of a vehicle would be incomprehensible and certainly unnavigable. Add to this the fact that every vehicle is different and the possibilities for each kind of part grow to staggering proportions. This is where the written text helps. Each vehicle is produced with specific attributes which are encoded in the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and much of the guesswork can be taken out of finding correct components if that number is available.
That only makes things easier. Often times the VIN number is not available and a consultant must be fluent enough in the coding language to still locate and procure the correct part. In many cases there are pages and pages of information to be poured over in the pursuit of the truth. If this is starting to sound more and more academic then I am worse at subtlety than I thought. Research habits are the same for the automotive technician and the parts consultant and anyone who is confronted with the need for information gathered across all boundaries, geographic and chronological. Just as in any other professional field, growth and progress only come on the shoulders of collective collaboration, and such collaboration is what comprises the parts catalog. Learning the language of that system and thereafter contributing to it establishes the user as a member of that collective effort and the genre of automotive taxonomy is exposed as both cause and effect. In short, the rhetorical situation that caused the catalog is reinforced and perpetuated by every participant in the genre it helped to produce.