I am a firm believer that technology can sometimes make you “dumber.” Sometimes having “an app for that” can lead to the loss of basic skills — and we become dependent on a machine to do actions for us. Calculators have dulled our ability to do basic math, texts have degraded the English language to sentences like “C U L8r,” and Mapquest has made us paper-map illiterate. The infiltration of technology into autos is no different… soon we might not even have to know how to drive! (And that would be a sad day.)
Cars are now packed with the newest examples of the “cutting edge” — but technology and computers aren’t always the best thing. Some features are “so smart” they can be downright annoying or end up being completely unhelpful. Here is my take on some of the cool features available today… but are they really enriching our lives or are they making us lazy, easily-annoyed, distracted drivers?
I am going to play off of the article written by Hannah Sternberg on bike week and talk about driving. Is there a “drive to work” week? I guess every week is “drive to work week,” or, in Washington, D.C., “try not to die while getting to your place of employment” week.
Washington, D.C., has the great honor of being one of the worst places to own a car and to navigate in a vehicle. Getting in and out of the city is something akin to Frodo’s quest to destroy the one ring in Mordor. Here is my list of the four most annoying things D.C. drivers encounter on the road.
*Also, these are not in a specific order as all of them are equally annoying.
1. Herds of tourists
There are so many people and so many cars on the road in D.C., it typically takes 20 minutes to go four miles. As a D.C. resident, you get used to ridiculousness like this, but in order to get to your destination, you need to be a little aggressive–like zooming through greens and even using yellows to get through intersections. If you don’t, you may never get home. I understand that tourists want to take the “prettiest picture ever” of that monument or that cherry blossom tree, but you can’t walk out into the middle of the road to do it. You also can’t stand with 50 of your underage friends in the crosswalk and re-recreate the Harlem Shake when you are blocking traffic. The drivers trying to obey the traffic lights want to get home–and you and your “I LOVE DC” t-shirt are the only thing between them and their goal…you better move it.
Government loans, grants from the Department of Energy, and private parties, pooling money in hopes of creating the next “Apple” of autos have flooded the “green vehicle” market with a motley crew of “earth-saving” cars. There was Fisker. There is Tesla — as well as an array of “EV” models added to mass-market brand portfolios… everyone and their cousin is jumping on the wagon to create an electric car. In the midst of this scramble, a historical EV maker has been revived.
It’s almost been two months since the new and improved Detroit Electric was relaunched to the world. Albert Lam, former Group CEO of Lotus Engineering Group and Executive Director of Lotus Cars in England, is the mastermind behind this historic company’s revival. The original “Detroit Electric” (also Anderson Carriage Company) produced electric cars from 1907-1939 but eventually went bankrupt due to the stock market crash of 1929 and its inability to keep up with the battery’s main competitor: the combustion engine.
While the American dream supports Detroit Electric’s pursuit of happiness (and success), I am not 100% sold on what D.E.’s niche will be… what will make them stand out compared to its competition? The start-up EVs tend to be super-cars on a veggie diet… or electric sports cars. Tesla has its sporty Model S and now we have, essentially, an electric Lotus Elise in the Detroit Electric SP.01. Keep in mind, buyers also have another luxury option in the electric BMW ActiveE.
The hybrid super-car competitor for Tesla and Detroit Electric, Fisker, is currently exploring bankruptcy and Tesla just made a profit (after 10 years). Do we really need another electric sports car? It sounds like something isn’t working… and it think it’s the price-tag.
“She’s a show stopper…she’s a jaw dropper…she’s burning hot like fire! She’s my Miss America!”
Tesla is on fire right now! (And I mean that in a good way). If cars had a Miss America pageant, Miss America Electric Vehicle 2013 would definitely be the Tesla Model S. She’s got the personality and the looks. Also, Tesla, the ten-year long shot, made a profit—this is better than the underdog winning the Miss America pageant! Consumer Reports recently gave the Model S a glowing review: “[the Tesla Model S] performed better, or just as well overall, as any other vehicle—of any kind—ever tested by Consumer Reports.” She also received a score of 99/100. Wow. She must have nailed that dance routine. Electric vehicles (EVs) have had some trouble getting out of the gate the past few years—so this review bodes well for the start-up and gives some hope to the EV cause.
The Tesla Model S is still very expensive and does require some more infrastructure planning in order to make it a serious “every-day American driver,” but the sedan is starting to look like the “It girl”–oops, I mean car–of green transportation. So what is different about the Tesla that is making it eclipse other EVs? How did Tesla clinch such a great review and why is she taking the auto world by storm? I’m not an engineer, thus I will not regale you on its potentially superior features that blow its competitors out of the park, but I would like to talk about Tesla’s design.
We have a new rivalry: the Google self-driving car vs. the General Motors “Super Cruise.” The tech world is all revved up about autonomous cars; it’s like Minority Report meets Back to the Future! But before we start singing “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, we need to take a step back and evaluate the feasibility of the implementation of the technology.
Cars are already available with semi-autonomous features: cruise control, automatic breaking (for objects that enter the car’s sensor fields), parallel park assist, and new features that guide cars back into their lane if they veer too much. The new Cadillac “Super Cruise” is attempting to one-up these features: it can steer the car within the lane, and will make the driver’s seat vibrate if the car veers out of bounds. It can also brake and accelerate to maintain a “selectable distance” between the car and those in front of it. Proponents of semi-autonomous, and future (fully) autonomous, cars argue that this technology will lead to safer roads, less accidents, better gas mileage, and less need for mistake-prone humans to be driving. I disagree. What about the imperfect nature of our new chauffeurs: computers?
We are the land of the free, home of the brave, and a country proud of the red, white, and blue. However, the color green also seems to be working its way into the fabric of America in the form of eco-conscious automobiles. Although an increasing number of Americans are buying electric vehicles, I am skeptical that Americans will completely make the switch. It isn’t America’s own cautious nature delaying the transition into electric cars; we have real reasons to be dubious that electric cars can fully accommodate our needs. In short, electric cars are not ready to meet the needs of American drivers.
1. “Reliability” is not its middle name.
As consumers have sought relief from climbing gas prices, interest in electric vehicles (EVs) has increased. In turn, rising sales have put more pressure on EV-manufacturers and dealers to expand service and offer more reliable cars… creating headaches and growing pains for the fledgling industry. Electric cars are still a new idea; thus, not all the bugs have been worked out. Case in point: Tesla.
Many car companies are adding EVs to their lineups, but only one company can call itself “all electric.” Tesla, the flagship of high-end electric vehicles, is a rising star in the EV world. Its cars are cool and offer some of the longest-range batteries available. Also, uch to the joy of taxpayers, it is set to repay its Department of Energy loans ($465 million) back five years early. Cha-ching! Despite its success, this rising “Michael Jordan” of the automotive world has stumbled. Tesla’s VERY profitable Model S was the unfortunate subject of a negative article that appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago — the writer’s Model S was plagued by low battery, was described as having to limp from charging station to charging station, and supposedly broke down due to cold-weather effects on the battery. A group of electric car owners, literal Tesla “roadies,” got together and decided to clear the name of the Tesla Model S. Their successful trip mirroring that in the Times article, and a foray into the computer of the journalist’s Model S, cast some major doubt on the authenticity of the article; however, it also cast some serious doubt on the capabilities of the Model S and other electric cars.
If batteries start on fire due to salt-water exposure or are possibly compromised due to more extreme air temperatures, electric cars are going to be fighting an uphill battle to prove their usefulness. In fact, in some areas of the country, they might not be possible to operate. To those who live in hurricane-prone areas, the “mini- arctic” in the north of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the oven-like states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas — you live in EV nightmare-land. State-by-state analysis of EV viability isn’t going to fly; these cars need to work everywhere — otherwise, why buy them?
There is an age-old question that will probably plague human curiosity (and laboratories) until our race perishes: when it comes to X, are men or women more capable? There have been multitudes of studies on perception, reaction times, pain-thresholds, physical, mental, emotional capabilities, etc. on both sexes to determine who is better equipped to do certain activities. Research conclusions that sought to divide the sexes by suitability have been refuted as both men and women have defied science and stereotypes. Worlds that have been traditionally “male-dominated” or “female-dominated” have collided and our stereotypical thinking has been challenged and overturned. Dangerous sports, such as racing, still seem to be firmly rooted in the “male-dominated” category, but women have slowly begun to infiltrate the paddock walls.
We oooh and ahh over females on the racetrack, but women in fast cars are not new. In fact, in the past few decades, several female racers have set records and taken top honors:
1. Shirley Muldowney was a pioneer in drag racing and the first woman to obtain a license from the National Hot Rod Association. She has a resume of accomplishments and awards that reads like a menu from Bubba Gump Shrimp. She was a real oil-burning lioness.
2. Janet Guthrie was the first female to qualify and compete in both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 and to drive in a NASCAR Winston Cup superspeedway race. In 2006, she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
3. Lyn St. James started in the Indianapolis 500 seven times (Danica Patrick is currently tied with her record). She has two wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona and one at the 12 Hours of Sebring. She also competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice.
Automobiles are everywhere, so it might come as a shock to some that the culture surrounding their creation and appreciation is dying. America has a long, rich history with the automobile — to the extent that you could call it a love story. Many a man and woman have been bewitched by the thundering horses under the hood, the smell of rich leather, the pulsing power felt underfoot, and the consequential adrenaline rush from a short spin around the block. The automobile is an essential piece of the cultural fabric of America. We helped to invent it, fine-tune it, unleash it… and, in the end, we fell in love with it. Owning a car became a source of pride, as well as a symbol of success and freedom. What’s more American than the image of a green, 1940s Chevy pick-up driving down a stretch of Route 66, a tan arm resting on the rolled-down window, fingers feeling the wind? It makes you want to yell, “America!” and go drink a Coke on the 4th of July.
Unfortunately, I’m not so sure this vision is a reality anymore. The vibrant love between car and man that inspired an entire culture of auto devotees now seems to be dwindling. The gear-head enthusiasts will always motor on, I am sure, but what happened to the average American? Simple respect and appreciation for the metal beast has shifted to sheer disinterest in cars. The following is the sad, draft-obituary of America’s car culture…
Picture a lovely California spring day, mid-1990s. I headed up to the Sierras with a friend in a 1982 Plymouth Reliant K car to meet up with my boyfriend and his fraternity brothers at a rock face they liked to climb. We’d missed them at the original spot and had to come back down the dirt, one-lane road that snaked up the hill. I carefully tried to ride the stiff ridges left by more adequate cars along a muddy stretch. I felt the K-car start to sink to the side, slowly becoming mired in the muddy grooves. Dusk was near, and in the interest of not becoming bear appetizer I jumped out the car, mud rising past my ankles (there went my white Keds), and had my friend slide behind the driver’s seat. I pushed as she hit the gas, the car eventually lurched out of the sticky mud, and I landed face-first in said mud.
Fast forward to my first new car, a 1995 Ford Escort GT. A friend and I decided to hop in the hooptie for a spontaneous road trip to Monterey. I found a brilliant shortcut across the Coast Ranges on my non-AAA-quality road map that should get us there in no time. When the road quicly turned dirt, I just kept on going. And going, with clods of hard dirt banging against the bottom of the car. Until the road was washed out, at which point we had to turn around and go back.
And I also can’t forget the time when I was reporting from near Campo, Calif., at the Mexican border, plowing through the dirt not-quite roads in a 2003 Camry when I heard someone following me in the desolate area frequented by drug traffickers and had to peel rubber to lose them.
In short, I have a long, illustrious history of taking vehicles into places they just aren’t built to go.
So when it came time to trade in my 2007 New Beetle convertible — first step was getting over the emotional attachment to Herbie, who brought me to the East Coast from L.A. and even had a stint in Denver where he got fitted with Blizzak tires — I decided to give in to my adventurous nature and get a car that could make it over a speed bump without bottoming out.
Have you ever had “just one of those days”? If you’re old enough to be reading this, then of course you have unless you are a complete oddity of life.
I recently had one of those days, and it turned out to be one of the roughest twenty four hours I’ve survived. It started off with the fruit platter I was making to take to my parent’s house. I went to the store to buy various fruit. It was pretty uneventful until trying to pick the perfect watermelon. I had everything else I needed, the watermelon was the last thing on my list. I picked up a watermelon and thumped it. Hmmmm, questionable so I returned it to the watermelon pile and picked another. I performed the thump test again and determined that this was a ripe, sweet juicy watermelon, so I placed it into the grocery cart. As I walked away from the watermelon display, the watermelons started rolling. By the time I was able to stop them, three watermelons had already crashed to the floor splattering the fruit and its juice all over the floor and all over me. My legs and feet were covered in watermelon so I couldn’t even pretend that I knew nothing about the avalanche which had just occurred. Besides, just about everybody on that side of the store had stopped and turned to look with hopes of discovering from where the ear piercing scream had come. Ugh! Caught red-footed. As the announcement came over the loud speaker “massive clean up needed in produce”, I stood there apologizing to every employee who came over to take care of that “massive clean up.”
I was finally able to leave the produce department slipping only once, hoping that no one in the check out lines would recognize me as the “watermelon lady” while wearing my oversized sunglasses. Clever, huh? I loaded the groceries into the trunk of my car, loaded myself into the driver’s seat and headed home.
Once home, I unloaded the groceries and set about making my fruit platter. As I sliced the watermelon, I could envision how beautiful this platter was going to look. The watermelon slices as flower petals, cherries, cantaloupe and kiwi placed in the centers of those flower petals to create the illusion of various flowers. Sigh. My eyes were getting watery at this picture dancing in my head… Or was it because I had just sliced my finger nearly taking off the top. Blood was running everywhere, so I guess it was a good thing that I was cutting watermelon — it wouldn’t show. I wrapped up my finger and continued working while trying to decide if I had time to get the top of my finger reattached. I figured my finger could wait until the next day and if still bleeding, I would take care of it then, maybe a little super glue. I finished my fruit platter and although it resembled melted crayon blobs more than flowers, I was happy it was done.
The next morning I awoke knowing that it was going to be a great day. Naturally I hit my wounded finger on the first thing I walked past causing the bleeding to start again. Oh well, I needed to get going and get that oh-so-beautiful platter to my parent’s home. I put the fruit into the back of my SUV and hit the road. I cranked up the music as Bob Dylan, one of my favorite songwriters, voice came through the speakers. I continued along a street which I drive daily, but I’m really not sure when that curb which juts out into the road was added. Hitting that curb not only brought me out of my reverie, but broke a tire rim along with the tire, and caused the destruction of my beautiful fruit design. Okay, maybe that looked better.
I saw the article from the Financial Times linked on Drudge today on how those 14-34 are turning away from driving:
Figures from the Federal Highway Administration show the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s licence rose to 26 per cent in 2010, from 21 per cent a decade earlier, according to a study by the Frontier Group and the US PIRG Education Fund released this month. (Some US states allow 14-year-olds to get a learner’s permit to drive.) Another study from the University of Michigan showed that people under 30 accounted for 22 per cent of all licensed drivers, down from a third in 1983, with the steepest declines among teenagers.
The article gave several reasons for the low driving rate among teens, including the economy and social media: people don’t meet face-to-face anymore and don’t need cars as much. It’s hard for me to believe that teens and younger people don’t want to drive. I wonder how much of it is the difficulty and regulations of getting a license that are so much higher today and how much is that younger people are used to being hauled around and taken care of by parents or how much is just fear and antagonism towards cars that the government and environmentalists put out? I can’t believe how few people know how to even drive a stick shift. Shouldn’t people learn these skills or are they obsolete?
Driving used to mean freedom — now it doesn’t. Is that a good thing? I don’t think so.
Note: This post was previously published at Cars In Depth.
If you’ve been pining for a hand crafted high performance British luxury car but the only thing standing in your way was the size of the monthly nut, Aston Martin has some good news for you. The exclusive Newport Pagnell automaker has announced what they describe as “unprecedented” low interest rate financing on nearly their full line of automobiles. The offer is good on six models and offers car loans at interest rates as low as 0.9%. That super low rate is available on the DBS and DB9 coupe and convertible Volante models, as well as the V8 Vantage coupe and roadster and the four door Rapide for loans up to five years. Six year loans are a bit more expensive, 1.9%. A-M’s twelve cylinder models, the V12 version of the Vantage and the Virage grand tourer, can be financed at 1.9% up to 5 years with longer loans at 2.9% The seven figure One 77 is not included in the offer.
It might move some metal but this could be very damaging to the Aston Martin brand and may indicate some panic within the company.
Aston Martin used to be a very small car company, producing as few as 600 cars a year two decades ago. Under Ford’s ownership, the brand grew substantially, eventually reaching about 7,000 units in 2007, the same year that Ford sold off A-M for slightly less than a billion dollars as it marshaled cash presciently before the financial crisis of 2008. That crisis resulted in fairly steep declines in all ultra-luxury marque’s sales. About 4,500 Astons were sold in 2010, down slightly from 2009. Year to date sales for 2011 are again down a few percentage points. Earlier this year it was reported that Aston Martin would be cutting production of the four door Rapide almost in half due to slow sales.
Aston Martin faces the dilemma that all makers of exclusive goods face when they try to dramatically increase their sales. The more you sell, the less exclusive your products are. Luca di Montezemolo recently has been saying that Ferrari won’t build more than 7,000 cars a year. Of course, in 1993, when a financial crisis in Asia resulted in Ferrari sales dropping by half after rapid expansion, Luca said back then, “Ferrari will never, never, never build more than 3500 cars a year.”
So high end car makers must be at least cognizant (if not actually diligent) about not damaging their brand by making it less exclusive. That’s why the announcement of the financing offer from Aston Martin is surprising. When was the last time Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Ferrari or Lamborghini had a sale? Yes, more mundane luxury marques advertise year end offers with special prices or financing, but BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and their competitors for the most part have much lower average transaction prices than the ultra luxury brands. If the city you live in has a fashionable shopping district, you’re not likely to see “50% Off! Clearance Sale – Everything Must Go!” banners in store windows in that part of town.
Also, if you need a special interest rate to be able to afford a car, can you really afford the car in the first place? Yes, rich folks like to save money too, but how many potential Aston customers are sitting on the fence because the interest rate is a percentage point or two too high? And speaking of a percentage point, does it really help the brand to offer a slightly higher rate for 72 month vs 60 month loans? Again, if the difference between being able to make the nut and not is stretching out the loan for another year, should that person really be buying an ultra luxury car?
Recently, Sajeev Mehta and the Best & the Brightest over at The Truth About Cars were discussing people who can afford to buy, but not fix, a used Porsche. Many commenters said that if you can’t afford to fix it, you shouldn’t be driving it in the first place. While, as Sajeev stresses, a monthly note on an entire car is easier to financially digest than a lump sum repair bill for an engine or transmission, those commenters do have some logic on their side. If you can’t handle the costs of ownership beyond purchase or lease price, maybe you really can’t afford it. One of the things that has killed Mitsubishi passenger sales in the US has been bottom feeding credit sales to people whose cars then get repossessed. That does wonders for depreciation. Selling cars to people who can’t afford them ultimately damages your brand as the cars get passed down the food chain. If easy financing can damage a mass market brand, it seems to me that all the more so it can damage an exclusive luxury brand.
On the upside, if you’re looking to get a good deal on an Aston Martin, I’d recommend that you not take advantage of the special offers on financing. Just wait a year or so for the people who can’t really afford an Aston but take A-M up on the current financing deal to start selling their cars.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile or entertaining, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks – RJS
This is a revised version of a post originally published at Cars In Depth.
I was going to write a snarky post based on Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics argument that, over the same distance, it’s safer to drive drunk than to walk drunk until I saw a figure that gave me pause. We can easily understand that 41% of the 34,000 people who died in traffic accidents in 2009 (the last full year of available figures) in the US were alcohol impaired but nearly as high a percentage, 35%, of the 4,000 or so pedestrians killed in traffic accidents that year were also drunk.
…Every mile walked drunk, turns out to be eight times more dangerous than the mile driven drunk. To put it simply, if you need to walk a mile from a party to your home, you’re eight times more likely to die doing that than if you jump behind the wheel and drive your car that same mile.
Of course Levitt isn’t advocating that people drive drunk, but calling your friend a cab might be a greater kindness than simply taking away his or her keys and telling them to walk it off. In any case, no matter whether you and your friends are teetotalers or dipsomaniacs the problem of drunk pedestrians still affects you. One of the things that makes today’s cars look the way they do are standards to protect pedestrians.
We all have to drive the cars built to those standards and try to see over the end of the tall, blunt hoods they inspire. The standards call for more crush space on vehicle noses and more deformable space between the hood and the top of the engine, with hoods made of softer materials than used currently. The idea is to reduce the force of pedestrians’ heads hitting the hood. All of that ultimately affects the way that cars look. That’s not just an aesthetic consideration, exterior styling affects a driver’s ability to see the road. Pedestrian safety standards are only going to get stricter.
Having been on the receiving end of a car/bicycle accident, I’m sympathetic to pedestrians who get run down by cars. However, I was at fault in that accident and the 35% of pedestrians who get killed when drunk also have to bear at least some of the blame for their own demise. Yes, most pedestrians who get killed by motorists aren’t drunk, and I’m sure none of us wants drunk pedestrians to get killed either. However, when the issue of pedestrian safety comes up, the focus is almost always on the responsibilities of drivers and car manufacturers, and rarely on the pedestrians’ own behaviors and obligations. When pedestrian safety comes up, though, don’t you think that the discussion should include the fact that a good chunk of the pedestrians who get hurt or killed by drivers aren’t kids in crosswalks, businesspeople stepping off the curb or moms pushing baby carriages but rather drunks?
I like to have fresh content daily at Cars In Depth, the car culture site that I edit. That can be a grind so to make the writing load a bit lighter, on Fridays I’ll feature YouTube videos with vintage car commercials (or promotional films) and “Car Tunes“, songs about cars and being on the road. It’s always fun to see what you learn on your way to learn about something else, and while I was looking for an appropriate vintage ad to run this week, I came across this animated 1951 short from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by Tex Avery called The Car of Tomorrow. It was one of a series of silly looks at the future (or actually a satirical look at the present), looking at farms, homes and televisions as well. Retro future is always fun. Some people take it too seriously though.
You can find two different versions of The Car of Tomorrow on YouTube, one is a few seconds shorter because it’s been censored to satisfy today’s sense of political correctness. One of the original scenes that was cut out featured a Native American (though in 1951 of course he was called an “Indian”) driving a rather Pontiac-looking convertible that had a tipi as the convertible top. Another censored bit was of a Chinese man (can I say Chinaman?) riding in the back of a roadster that turned out to pulled by a rickshaw driver. Now to be honest, that shows how silly some of the PC sensitivities can be. Native Americans, at least the Plains Indians, indeed lived in tipi tents. Though today they are more likely to be powered by pedal bikes or scooter motors, rickshaws are still used throughout China and much of the rest of Asia.
It’s not just Tex Avery. There are many, many old cartoons with ethnic, racial and gender stereotypes. Warner Brothers even let the copyrights lapse on some of the Looney Tunes cartoons, allowing them to pass into the public domain, because it was thought that Bugs Bunny’s wartime imitation of Japanese folks might cause the studio some PC grief. When you consider just how racialist Imperial Japan was, how racism as well as imperialism drove some policies regarding China and Korea, Bugs’ squinty eyes and thick glasses just don’t seem to be a terrible moral crime.
What I think best demonstrates the nonsensical silliness and hypocrisy of the PC censorship of old cartoons best is just how selective the censorship is. The censored version apparently was not censored enough since the bowdlerized version has still upset feminists. The cartoon features a car “especially designed for the women” that is not only painted pink and trimmed with curtains, panties and flower planters, Avery gave it an obvious bust and derriere. Actually, come to think of it, Avery’s ladies car it is a bit reminiscent of the Dodge LaFemme, a pink car with a cosmetics case that Chrysler actually sold in the 1950s.
Also, while the censors were exquisitely sensitive about the feelings of Native Americans and Chinese, they absolutely ignored another ethnic stereotype. Coming not long after the deleted scenes with the Indian convertible and Chinese roadster, there is the “super thrifty Scotchman model”, pedal powered. In today’s racial and ethnic calculus it’s wrong to show Chinese using people power to get around but it’s perfectly fine for Scots to do the same and there’s nothing wrong at all about saying that the Scots are cheap.
Fired GM CEO Rick Wagoner. Photo credit: Marty Densch
With January approaching that means the big North American International Auto Show is just around the bend. The domestic auto industry has gone through wrenching (no pun intended) changes over the past three years. Preparing for the big Detroit show, Marty Densch did a couple of posts at Cars In Depth looking back at the auto executives that have lost their jobs and those who have been left standing.
For the past 3 years there have been large delegations of politicians from Washington at the big Detroit auto show. With 2012 being an election year, I expect that the NAIAS media preview will again be visited by a lot of pols, particularly Democrats eager to take credit for the turnaround at GM and Chrysler. I could be wrong but my impression is that there’s been a lot more turnover in the ranks of those in Detroit who ran the domestic auto industry into the ground than in the ranks of those in Washington who ran the domestic economy into the ground.
GM CEO Rick Wagoner got fired by Barack Obama and his replacement, Ed Whitacre, stepped aside after a short stint as a caretaker. Bob Nardelli and Jim Press are gone from Chrysler. Wagoner, Nardelli and Whitacre will most likely not show their faces at the NAIAS this year. Jim Press may be there, but he’s taken a low profile since being hired last year as a consultant to Nissan. In his list of those who have fallen, Marty Densch also included a couple of politicians, Nancy Pelosi, who lost her job as US House Speaker after the Nov. 2010 congressional elections and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was term limited. Though the executives disgraced in the implosion of the domestic auto industry have the decency to stay outside of the limelight, politicians will continue to flock to journalists’ camcorder lights at the NAIAS like moths to a flame.
Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional delegation to the 2011 NAIAS in Detroit. Photo credit: Autoblog Green
Pelosi and Steny Hoyer spent tens of thousands of dollars heading a congressional delegation to the 2011 NAIAS two months after the Democrats lost power in the House. Now that GM is profitable, I won’t be surprised to see her at the 2012 show. Since leaving office, Granholm took a job working for Al Gore’s Current TV cable network. She hasn’t been shy about taking credit for the bailout of GM and Chrysler and for all the hard to account for green jobs in Michigan she claims that her administration created or incubated, so I expect Granholm as well to be at the ’12 NAIAS, ostensibly to cover the show for her tv network, but primarily to crow about GM’s current profitability and Chrysler’s survival.
Video: A123 Systems
Just as the flurry of news about the potential fire risk in the Chevy Volt’s battery pack was dying down, Bloomberg reports that the battery manufacturer for another high profile electric vehicle, the Fisker Karma luxury extended range hybrid, has revealed what it called a “potential safety issue” in the cooling system of the batteries that it makes for the car, currently assembled in Finland using a $529 million loan from the U.S. Dept. of Energy.
A123 Systems, a leading producer of Lithium-Ion batteries that supplies Daimler and General Motors in addition to Fisker, said that hose clamps connecting parts of the Karma battery pack’s internal cooling system were not aligned properly, creating a the potential for leakage of the coolant, which might cause overheating and also possibly short circuit the batteries, causing a fire.
Because current Li-Ion batteries are flammable, battery temperature control and cooling is a critical process. Concerns over EV fire safety were raised when a crash-tested Volt later caught fire in a NHTSA facility. Short circuits caused by leaking battery coolant is suspected to be the cause. While GM uses a different battery supplier, LG Chem, for the Volt, A123 will be the battery vendor for the EV version of the Chevy Spark subcompact, to go on sale in 2013.
The news was made public in a letter from company CEO David Vieau published on A123′s investor-relations website. Since production of the Karma started only recently, less than 50 cars are said to be affected by the problem. Vieau said that a “confirmed repair” for the potential leak has been developed and that A123 has already started to fix the defective batteries. The cost to A123, Vieau said, will be “minimal” and the company’s relationship with Fisker “remains strong”. Last week the Anaheim based luxury hybrid car company announced that it has shipped 225 Karmas to Fisker dealers, with another 1,200 in the pipeline. Currently put together by Valmet in Finland, Fisker says that production of the Karma will eventually be moved to a former GM assembly plant in Wilmington, Delaware.
Lost in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, Congress has quietly ended subsidies on ethanol fuel as well as ending a special import tariff on Brazilian ethanol. The ethanol subsidy paid fuel blenders 45 cents per gallon to make E10, gasoline blended with 10% ethanol. The tariff added 54 cents to the cost of importing a gallon of ethanol from Brazil. The ethanol subsidy currently costs US taxpayers about $6 billion per year. Over the past 30 years, the program has cost $45 billion. By taking no action on the subsidy before adjourning for the end of the year, Congress effectively killed the program.
Though ethanol interests, like corn growers and affiliated industries, have considerable political power, a wide variety of critics, cutting across political lines, had coalesced around the issue, encouraging Congress to let the subsidy end. The food processing and livestock industries joined with environmentalists to oppose the subsidy. The policy was encouraging diversion of corn from feedlots and food processors to ethanol production, raising the cost of foodstuffs. Environmentalists, some of whom used to endorse ethanol as a biofuel, now say that it’s “dirty” because its production is carbon intense.
Ethanol trade groups have said that the industry would survive the loss of the subsidy, now that the US ethanol production industry has become established. The industry is still protected by congressional mandates that call for 15 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2015 and 36 billion gallons by 2022.
The ethanol issue involves a number of powerful players, corn growers and affiliated industries on one side and food interests, automakers and engine builders on the other. Then there’s the EPA to consider. The EPA has approved the use of E15, an 85/15 gasoline/ethanol blend, for use in post 2001 cars. Manufacturers say that without modifications, E15 will damage engines. In February, in a bipartisan move the House voted 285-136 to block the EPA from moving ahead with E15 regulations.
While ending the subsidy would seemingly discourage ethanol’s use, the end of the 54 cents per gallon tariff on imported Brazilian ethanol might do more to encourage that use than the subsidies did. Brazil is one place where it makes sense to use ethanol as a fuel because of Brazil’s huge sugar industry. The ratio of energy needed to produce it vs the energy obtained in the fuel for ethanol made from corn is barely greater than one, 1.3:1, compared to 2:1 for using sugar beets and 8:1 for sugar cane, the feedstock for Brazil’s ethanol. It costs half as much to make Brazilian cane ethanol as it does to make American corn ethanol. According to one academic study transportation costs to US ports eliminate that competitive advantage, but if that was a certainty, Brazilian sugar cane producers wouldn’t have threatened to start a trade war if the tariff wasn’t ended.
Technically speaking, a nine branched Chanukah candelabra is called a Chanukiah. The word Menorah, from the Hebrew word for something that enlightens, is actually the name of the seven branched candelabra that was used in the Temple and Tabernacle, but today “Menorah ” is usually associated with Chanukah.
Just about anything that burns fuel or can hold a candle or lamp oil can be used to make a Chanukiah. My friend and colleague David Holzman has even made decorative menorahs out of engine valves.
“Decorative” because his candlesticks are arranged in a circle and to be a kosher Chanukah menorah, acceptable for ritual use, when viewed all eight lights have to be in a straight horizontal row at the same level so you can see eight distinct flames.
Eight? Didn’t I say nine before? Well there’s a light for each of the eight days of Chanukah. The ninth is called the Shamas (beadle), it is used to light the actual Chanukah lights, and it is usually set off from the other eight by height. So things that come in sets of eight are useful. Fortunately, lots of car stuff comes in sets of eight. Murilee Martin thought an exhaust manifold from a straight eight might work.
It doesn’t necessarily have to come in sets of eight, used car dealer extraordinaire Steve Lang suggested chrome exhaust tips, though those would take some pretty big candles.
Being a traditionalist I’m not a huge fan of electric menorahs, but I just might make a spark plug menorah next year. Other possibilities that come to mind are a set of velocity stacks, the cylinder block to a Duesenberg SJ, or a Packard cylinder head.
Or you could just rig up eight exhaust flame throwers.
So what kind of car part would you use to make a Chanukah menorah?
*I’m usually a stickler for accuracy when it comes to transliterating Hebrew, but alliteration works so well in headlines.
Most American auto enthusiasts that were around in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even those that weren’t thrilled with big American land yachts, had little regard for Japanese cars. It wasn’t that they were small. VW Beetles were successfully advertised with the slogan “Think Small”. No, Japanese cars were just not very good. Reliable? Yes. Good? No. Underpowered, rust-prone, lacking decent automatic transmissions, and technologically not very advanced (well, with the exception of Honda), Japanese cars sold primarily on price. One would think that Japanese cars didn’t have a chance with American consumers. Over @ TTAC, commenter VanillaDude quite neatly summed up how the Japanese automakers managed to establish a beachhead in California:
California had been booming since WWII, and had gained a national prominence. It gave us many modern cultural phenomena via music and television, adding to it’s Hollywood sparkle and governor. With only three national television networks, California dominated what Americans saw in 1973. Many Americans went to bed with Johnny Carson whose move from East to West Coast never went unnoticed.
Pop music was important in 1973. Radio played Californians. To the US during this era, California was it’s future whether it was in government, aerospace, electronics, entertainment and sheer style. During the early 20th Century, Americans looked to New York City, by 1973, Americans were ready to cut up their Brooks Brothers men’s wear and relax California style. Groovy man!
So when the Japanese auto makers shoved their tin road traps onto diesel freighters and floated their wares to America, they ended up in California. At a time when Detroit was navel-diving for profits, the Japanese struck California gold.
After 64 years of making cars and 9 months of a fruitless effort to find financing to keep the company going, Saab today was declared bankrupt by a Swedish court. Swedish Automobile NV CEO Victor Muller filed for bankruptcy after former Saab owner General Motors indicated that it would exercise its veto power over any of the proposed plans to save Saab. GM owns key intellectual property that any ongoing Saab business would necessarily use. Following the GM announcement over the weekend, proposed Saab savior Zhejiang Youngman Lotus Automobile announced that it was withdrawing from the deal to provide the three quarters of a billion dollars needed to restart production in Trollhattan.
If you have ever enjoyed a drawing of a wild hot rod, put together a plastic monster kit as a child, or wore a t-shirt embellished with automotive art, you probably owe a debt of gratitude to Stanley Miller, better known as Stanley Mouse, of Mouse Studios. His seminal role in hot rod culture, though, is not that well known because his early success in automotive art was greatly eclipsed by his later work associated with rock ‘n roll. In 1960s San Francisco, Mouse, on his own and with his artistic partner Alton Kelley, created concert posters and album covers that literally changed the face of commercial art. Styles and motifs that Mouse either originated or revived have become so commonplace that his influence can now be widely seen in the work of graphic artists that may not even realize they are channeling Mouse’s work.
Political humorist Frank J. Fleming poses an interesting thought experiment: what if the car was not over a century old but was just invented recently? Would societies and governments permit the private, gasoline powered automobile?
Imagine if cars hadn’t been around for a century, but instead were just invented today. Is there any way they’d be approved for individual use? It’s an era of bans on incandescent bulbs; if you suggested putting millions of internal-combustion engines out there, you’d get looks like you were Hitler proposing the Final Solution.
Even aside from pollution, the government wouldn’t allow the risks to safety.
“So you’re proposing that people speed around in tons of metal? You must mean only really smart, well-trained people?”
“No. Everyone. Even stupid people.”
“Won’t millions be killed?”
“Oh, no. Not that many. Just a little more than 40,000 a year.”
“Oh . . . millions.”
There’s no way that would get approved today.
Driving is basically a grandfathered freedom from back when people cared less about pollution and danger and valued progress and liberty over safety.
Fleming’s perspective that we live in a much more constrained society is not new one, nor is it necessarily based on political ideology. Frank is on the political right. Leftist British historian A.J.P Taylor opens his English History 1914-1945 with the following passage:
Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s recent recommendation that all 50 states ban all cell phone (including hands-free) and personal electronic device use when driving got a lot of attention. Now it turns out that the NTSB’s chairman, Deborah Hersman, has knowingly used false statistics to promote that proposed ban. The NTSB’s recommendation came in the wake of the report on a multi-vehicle fatality accident in Gray Summuit Missouri, where texting behind the wheel was determined to be one (but not the only) contributing factor. In her opening statement to the report, which is still on the NTSB web site, Hersman said,
And it was over just like that. It happened so quickly. And, that’s what happened at Gray Summit. Two lives lost in the blink of an eye. And, it’s what happened to more than 3,000 people last year. Lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.
I think that any reasonable person would agree that Chairman Hersman is implying that 3,000 people a year are killed in road accidents caused by texting. That’s simply not true.
Hollywood producer Bert Schneider passed away earlier this week at the age of 78. He produced some artistically and culturally notable films like “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Last Picture Show.” He also produced tv shows that were a bit more lowbrow, including The Monkees. Now the Monkees may have been a packaged rock and roll band, the so-called “pre-fab four”, but the fact remains that Schneider hired great talent. Besides the four undeniably charismatic actors & musicians they hired to play the band, Schneider and his partner Bob Rafelson engaged the cream of Hollywood’s pop songwriters, producers and session players to back up the “band” (after the first two albums, the members of the Monkees rebelled, insisting on being allowed to do more than vocals – Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were experienced musicians before they auditioned for the show). When it came to providing the tv series’ fictional band with wheels, Schneider turned to custom car virtuoso Dean Jeffries to create what would become the Monkeemobile, one of the most identifiable movie or tv cars that there is.