The Truth About Cars » Blind Spot http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Mon, 04 Aug 2014 17:07:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Blind Spot http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/category/editorials/blind-spot/ Blind Spot: America’s New Motor City http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/blind-spot-americas-new-motor-city/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/blind-spot-americas-new-motor-city/#comments Mon, 21 May 2012 20:40:16 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=445389 Throughout the history of the automobile in America, one city has been synonymous with the industry and culture of cars. Booming with America’s great period of industrialization, Detroit became the Motor City, the hometown of an industry that created a blue-collar middle class and a culture based on personal mobility. But as America has entered […]

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Throughout the history of the automobile in America, one city has been synonymous with the industry and culture of cars. Booming with America’s great period of industrialization, Detroit became the Motor City, the hometown of an industry that created a blue-collar middle class and a culture based on personal mobility. But as America has entered the post-industrial age, as the focus of our economy has shifted from production to consumption, Detroit has been left behind. Long used to defining consumer tastes, Detroit was caught unawares by the changes wrought by globalization and the rise of information technology. And as America’s traditional auto industry struggles to redefine itself in the new economy, another Motor City is rising to meet the challenges of a new age.

Though not often recognized as such, Los Angeles has long been America’s “other” car capital. Developing during the rise of the automobile, Los Angeles has become a place where automobile ownership is not just a necessity, but a fundamental aspect of the culture. And as a result of its headlong embrace of the automobile, Southern California has contributed some of the most important elements of automotive culture. From the drive-through fast food joints that now dot America’s landscape to Harley Earl’s design revolution, from hot rod culture to smog control, it is impossible to imagine modern American life without L.A.’s unique automotive achievements.

Industrial-age Detroit was surely grateful for Southern California’s innovative attempts to reshape society around the cars it produced. But as long as the automakers dominated the wealth produced by America’s love affair with the automobile, Los Angeles was seen as little more than Detroit’s best customer. Though an important ally in promoting automotive culture, Los Angeles’s value to the industry was little more than offshoot of its major industry: entertainment. But as global competitors entered the US market, Southern California’s car-crazed culture became one of the first to embrace the imports. And as Detroit’s near-monopoly began to erode, the balance of power shifted: from this point on, consumers would drive automotive tastes with increasing independence.

With this shift, Los Angeles began its ascent in the automotive world. While Detroit lay mired in the industrial age, Southern California developed a taste for the new global menu of automotive options, and simultaneously embraced the new revolution in information technology. Its status as a taste-maker grew, and its focus on consumer opinion, fashion and communication put it in close touch with the values that were reshaping America’s economy. Now, with the information and consumer-economy revolutions largely realized, Southern California is becoming the new center of gravity for America’s auto business.

In fitting with the values of this new world, L.A.’s automotive juggernauts neither produce nor themselves sell automobiles. Instead of factories and dealerships, they have invested in server farms and data models. Rather than controlling information to maximize profits in support of an industrial supply chain, they create and share information in service of the consumer and market efficiency. And through this revolution, the two titans of Southern California’s “automotive industry,” Edmunds and Truecar, have become some of the biggest players in the business of buying and selling cars.

Edmunds.com got its start just as Los Angeles was coming into its own as the capitol of American automotive consumption, and well before the information revolution began to take hold. In 1966, it began publishing booklets which consolidated automotive specifications as a tool to help buyers make informed decisions. Over the years, it has evolved this service from print to CD-ROM, to web page and mobile app. And with new technology, it has dramatically expanded its services, offering everything from news, reviews, and specifications to industry analysis and forecasting, from a live consumer-advice hotline to dealer reviews and its “True Market Value” pricing tool. Never losing focus on its original insight, that consumers need help navigating the crowded new car market, Edmunds has embraced every new technology to expand on its mission and become the most established gatekeeper to the burgeoning world of online auto research and sales.

Entering Edmunds’ brightly-colored offices in Santa Monica, it becomes instantly clear that the company looks to Silicon Valley rather than Detroit. With its whiteboard walls, open cubicles, espresso machines and video game room, the ambience is clearly inspired by Google rather than GM. And like Google and Facebook, Edmunds is finding that its consumer service is just the beginning of its opportunities. So massive is the traffic that Edmunds’ car buying website generates, it has developed its own value as a model for the larger market. As the patterns of research at Edmunds.com shift, the company can track changes in interest in specific cars and brands with an ingenious in-house application, giving it insights into the market that no automaker  can ignore. By serving consumers with the latest technology, Edmunds can not only generate huge revenue from advertising and sales leads, but create valuable intelligence for the industry as well.

Though Edmunds’ business model may now embrace the industry as well as consumers, it hasn’t lost sight of its original mission. Indeed, as it has assumed leadership in the burgeoning auto consumer services industry, it has embraced its role as an advocate for automotive consumers in every venue. Leading this charge is former CEO and current Vice Chairman, Jeremy Anwyl, an intense, often-iconoclastic dynamo who has become the closest thing the automotive business has to a public intellectual. Rising to prominence through his regular commentary and industry analysis, Anwyl has become a regular figure at Washington D.C. hearings on everything from fuel economy regulations to distracted driving. Over a brief lunch, he jumped with ease from topics as diverse as EV tax credits and NHTSA incident reporting to sales forecasting and media criticism, fusing a generalist’s fascination with every aspect of the automotive business and culture with an unshakeable focus on serving consumers. While Detroit’s executives often seem inward-looking and overly focused on their traditional industry patterns, Anwyl demonstrates the importance of an automotive culture that engages every arena in which automobiles play a role. His ability to serve as the auto consumer’s advocate-in-chief, not only serves Edmunds’ mission and image well, it helps cement the consumer power that launched his company to prominence.

But Edmunds’ rise, from booklet printer to market-making, policy-influencing juggernaut, has not gone unnoticed. Numerous companies have tried to match its success and compete for its influence, but few have given it any real trouble. The simple fact is that Edmunds has been working at its mission so long, and has been so in tune with cultural and technological shifts, that any rival would have to make enormous investments in order to match its suite of services and aura of leadership. And yet, in just a few short years, one company has managed to break through Edmunds’ near-monopoly, and join it as the second Southern Californian juggernaut of automotive consumer services. That company is TrueCar.

The short roots of TrueCar’s stunning rise to prominence lead back to Edmunds. Formed by a core of Edmunds employees, TrueCar grew out of just one element of Edmunds’ sweeping empire: the “True Market Value” pricing tool. While the larger site spread its resources across an entire ecosystem of consumer information and advocacy, TrueCar’s mission was laser-focused on creating the best real-time pricing tool on the web. By investing in every possible source of data on new car sales, and by developing a slick, intuitive interface focused solely on delivering localized market price transparency, TrueCar has been able to claw out a niche in one of the most lucrative automotive consumer services. And though Edmunds downplays comparisons with TrueCar, it’s clear that the upstart firm has established itself as a major player.

TrueCar’s more focused culture is evident in its almost zen-like offices high atop Santa Monica’s historic clock tower. In sharp contrast to Edmunds’ primary colors, copious espresso machines and young employees blowing off steam at the company pinball machine, TrueCar’s headquarters are smaller, less self-conscious, and a more obviously-focused workplace. Not that TrueCar couldn’t have a vast Google-like complex if it wanted: just last year, in the depths of of the economic downturn, the company brought in a $200 million round of investment. But, as CEO Scott Painter explains, TrueCar’s spends its millions largely on acquiring and analyzing pricing data. Where Edmunds seeks to offer a complete research and shopping experience, Painter refuses to break focus on pricing until total market transparency is achieved.

But where Edmunds’ broader focus has allowed it to assume the mantle of consumer advocate in a generally non-confrontational manner, TrueCar’s narrower but deeper approach to serving consumers has ruffled feathers among dealers and manufacturers. For an industry long used to consumers overwhelmed by the vast variety of brands, models and trim levels, and for dealers who have long relied on asymmetrical information to pad their profits, TrueCar’s crusade for pricing transparency has tipped the balance of power so far towards consumers as to be seen as a threat.

Towards the end of 2011, TrueCar, falling victim to its own success, came into conflict with dealer groups, manufacturer “dealer marketing allowance” schemes, and state regulators tasked with protecting local franchise laws. In the wake of that confrontation, TrueCar has had to make some specific changes in how it operates its business, but the industry’s reaction showed that TrueCar’s mission to deliver real pricing transparency was changing the way automotive retail works. And as Detroit has proved over the last 40 years, businesses who cling to a comfortable past in the face of inexorable historic forces get left behind.

Though Edmunds and TrueCar eye each other warily, and though there is certainly some overlap in their business models, they aren’t really competitors. Together, they form the vanguard of a movement to use information to empower consumers, and I would argue that a consumer that wants to make the most of this new movement would use Edmunds to help decide what kind of automobile might suit them best, and use TrueCar to help price and negotiate for it once that decision has been made.

Competition between the two will make both better, which in turn will arm consumers with ever-greater power in the marketplace. In this way, the two behemoths of online car buying services will continue to strip power from the automakers, force them to pay closer attention to consumers, and drive the innovations that will allow producers to more efficiently serve an increasingly-informed market. And as this dynamic plays out, the producers and marketers of Detroit and elsewhere will have no choice but to recognize the rise of America’s new Motor City in sunny Southern California.

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Blind Spot: Digging Deeper Into GM’s Fuel Economy Record http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/blind-spot-digging-deeper-into-gms-fuel-economy-record/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/blind-spot-digging-deeper-into-gms-fuel-economy-record/#comments Thu, 19 Apr 2012 16:43:46 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=440871 Old habits die hard. Whether it’s GM’s desire to slice-and-dice its fuel economy achievements to make them look better than they are, or our instinct to correct the record, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating. GM, like most of the Detroit automakers, has never had an easy time marketing its fuel economy achievements. With […]

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Old habits die hard. Whether it’s GM’s desire to slice-and-dice its fuel economy achievements to make them look better than they are, or our instinct to correct the record, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

GM, like most of the Detroit automakers, has never had an easy time marketing its fuel economy achievements. With a huge percentage of its sales and an even higher percentage of profits traditionally coming from full-sized trucks and SUVs, GM has had to respond to rising gas prices with some questionable claims. Perhaps the most infamous: 2008′s campaign touting the assertion that Chevrolet sold more cars getting 30 MPG on the highway than Honda or Toyota. Not only did this claim ignore the most accurate measures of fleet-wide efficiency, but it also stretched the truth rather badly. When TTAC’s readers analyzed this claim, they found that Chevy was counting different bodystyles as different models, effectively “double counting” cars like the Aveo (which was counted the four- and five-door models as separate cars). When the same counting technique was applied to Toyota’s model range, it was shown to have even more 30 MPG-capable cars than Chevy, essentially invalidating what was already a fairly marginal marketing claim.

But since 2008, the pressure has only mounted on GM to show improvement in its fuel economy. Though gas prices aren’t higher than they were back in the Summer of ’08 (yet), GM’s bailout has created a new kind of pressure. As I pointed out in a December 2010 NY Times Op-Ed, President Obama’s green justification for the bailout seemed to be something of a mirage. With gas prices then falling and pickup and SUV sales picking back up, Detroit was hardly living up to Obama’s vow that

This restructuring, as painful as it will be in the short term, will mark not an end, but a new beginning for a great American industry. An auto industry that is once more outcompeting the world; a 21st-century auto industry that is creating new jobs, unleashing new prosperity and manufacturing the fuel-efficient cars and trucks that will carry us toward an energy-independent future.

Now, not only is GM facing pressure put on it by a President who seemed to offer fuel economy leadership from Detroit as a public reward for the public’s investment, but gas prices are also beginning to rise once more. And though GM has absolutely improved its fuel economy in the meantime, it still significantly lags the rest of the industry on an objective fleet-wide basis. And what’s worse, it’s marring its modest but admirable achievements by falling back on the old “most models over 30 MPG” chestnut.

In a post titled “Digging Into GM’s Fuel Economy Record” at his new “BTW” blog, GM’s VP for Communication Selim Bingol resurrects GM’s pre-bailout canard by arguing

GM has been selling a lot of fuel-efficient vehicles in many different sizes and styles – and more than you may think.

Just look at March.  We sold more vehicles in the United States that deliver an EPA-estimated 30 mpg or better on the highway than ever before – more than 100,000 – and the figure includes cars like the Chevrolet Camaro V-6 and crossovers like the GMC Terrain.

It might surprise you to know that these results make GM far and away the leader among the “Detroit” Three automakers, and we’re not that far off the pace set by Toyota.

So, instead of “more models over 30 MPG than Toyota,” GM is claiming 30 MPG option leadership over its Detroit competitors. And, to its undying credit, it’s not misleading the public by double-counting models this time around. Thanks to its genuinely improved offerings, GM legitimately has 12 options rated at over 30 MPG on the highway. On the other hand, the fact that GM sells more 30 MPG cars than its Detroit competitors is, as Bingol admits, at least

partly a function of our scale.

But although Bingol makes a more credible case for the “more models over 30 MPG” claim than his predecessors, achievements like these don’t get better with age. For one thing, the competition has moved on: Hyundai, for example, now reports the percentage of its sales that are rated at 40 MPG on the highway… some 41% as of March. Bingol as good as admits that GM is still playing catchup when he notes

Of course, 30 mpg is not the goal line.  We can and will move the needle higher because customers and our CAFE commitments demand it.  Soon enough, 40 mpg will be the new 30.

Here’s the thing: it already is. GM is touting a claim that might have been impressive four years ago… had it been accurate. Today, with well over 20 models available with at least 40 MPG highway ratings, it’s a yawner.

But not only has the industry moved on since 2008, the market has as well. Thanks to the rise of sites like TrueCar and Edmunds, consumers have access to more data on new cars than ever before. And since transparency has improved in the auto market, there are now far more accurate ways to compare manufacturer fuel economy than existed in 2008. With the fuel economy leader Hyundai self-publishing its sales-weighted fleet fuel economy numbers, TrueCar has stepped in to provide similar data for the entire industry. And isn’t the best way to compare fuel economy by measuring what the manufacturers actually sell?

By this measure, however, GM does not come out looking like an industry leader. In fact, as a manufacturer, GM doesn’t even make the industry average fuel economy. And its greatest deficit is in the car segments, where it’s nearly two MPG off the industry average. Moreover, GM’s rate of improvement in March was one of the lowest in the industry, which means it’s actually falling behind the competition. By brand, the picture is similar: each of GM’s brands comes in below the industry average, with truck-free Buick coming the closest at just .1 MPG off the mean.

This is not to say that GM hasn’t made improvements. As Bingol points out, GM sells a far more balanced mix of cars, trucks and crossovers than ever before. By segment, GM’s offerings beat the industry average for Large Cars, Large and Small Trucks and Large and Midsized SUVs. In fact, TrueCar shows that GM’s Midsized SUV offerings are by far the most efficient in the industry, at 24.1 MPG compared to a 21.9 MPG average.

Though these are clearly signs of movement in the right direction, they’re not enough to give GM a credible claim to fuel economy leadership… even among the Detroit automakers. But then, that was fairly apparent from the moment The General dusted off an ineffective marketing claim from  2008. Thanks to the relatively slow run-up in gas prices, pickup and SUV sales are remaining strong and GM needs their profits far more than it needs to become a fuel economy leader. But if the market experiences another Summer ’08-style rush towards high-efficiency cars, GM is going to have to come up with a better pitch to economy-minded consumers. And ultimately, it’s going to have to work harder than everyone else if it ever wants to make good on Obama’s promise of fuel economy leadership.

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Blind Spot: It Ain’t Easy Being Green http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/blind-spot-it-aint-easy-being-green/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/04/blind-spot-it-aint-easy-being-green/#comments Tue, 17 Apr 2012 22:04:40 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=440444 When government, media and industry agree that a trend exists, it’s generally taken as fait accompli. After all, these three institutions wield immense cultural power, and together they are more than capable of making any prophecy self-fulfilling. But there’s always a stumbling block: acceptance by the everyday folk who actually make up our society. And […]

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When government, media and industry agree that a trend exists, it’s generally taken as fait accompli. After all, these three institutions wield immense cultural power, and together they are more than capable of making any prophecy self-fulfilling. But there’s always a stumbling block: acceptance by the everyday folk who actually make up our society. And when a trend is taken for granted, the ensuing rush to be seen as being in touch with said trend often generates more heat than light. Such is the case with the trend towards “green cars.” Few would deny that they are “the future,” but at the same time, there’s been precious little examination of how this future is to be realized. And when such examination does take place, it tends to raise more questions than it answers.

Case in point: the Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a report examining just how “green” the “greenest” cars available, namely electric cars, are. By examining the average C02 emissions of the various regional power grids, they are able to show on a roughly apples-to-apples basis how carbon-efficient EVs are in comparison to their gasoline-sipping cousins. And their findings show that in broad swathes of the US, pure-electric cars are little better than hybrids like the Prius in terms of average C02 emissions.

This ACS report is something of a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes an important point about EVs: that they are only as environmentally-friendly as the grid from which they draw their power. This fact has long been ignored by policymakers who take the “greenness” of EVs for granted and create uniform national EV stimulus, as if EVs were uniformly “green.” On the other hand, the ACS clearly has a pro-EV agenda, and its report concludes that

There are no areas of the country where electric vehicles have higher global warming emissions than the average new gasoline vehicle.

Given that EV offerings are currently limited to the Compact and Subcompact segments, this is hardly a fair comparison. And since the EPA includes cars like the Bentley Continental GTC as a “subcompact,” a fair comparison would take some real work. To be fair though, the UCS is correct when it points out that 45% of Americans live in the coastal regions where relatively clean grids offer strong environmental incentives for EV use. More importantly, those areas which have dirtier grids tend to be the same regions (the South and Midwest) where geography and development patterns create more practical disincentives for EV use. For this reason, the somewhat disappointing results of the study are unlikely to dramatically hurt the nascent EV market.

Still, this geographical distribution has important consequences for public policy. For one thing, it points out the futility of a nationwide EV incentive program, at least as an environmental policy. Luckily, this reality seems to have taken hold in D.C., where EV-only incentives are being broadened to include multiple fuels and encourage local solutions. On the other hand, the fact that EVs are a hot trend means local governments are often more anxious to show off their trend-awareness than craft sensible policy based on local realities.

For example, Colorado has one of the least “green” grids in the country, and yet its state government has been one of the most aggressive in handing out EV tax credits. Prior to 2010, Colorado allowed Tesla buyers to take up to $42,000 in credits. Today EVs get a $6,000 incentive in addition to the $7,500 (soon to be $10k) federal credit, and a local group has received half a million dollars in federal grants to promote EVs in the state. Given that Colorado-based EVs emit equivalent emissions to a 33 MPG combined gasoline car (think: Hyundai Elantra), this is proof that hopping on a PR-driven bandwagon often outweighs the actual benefits of such “environmental” policies.

But, in a profoundly ironic twist, Colorado may well become a leading market for EVs… and not just because of its generous government incentives either. In fact, Colorado’s relatively dirty grid actually makes it one of the cheaper states in which to operate an EV. In its cost analysis of individual cities, the UCS finds that Colorado Springs’ 2.4 cents-per-mile operating cost for a Nissan Leaf is one of the cheapest in the country, especially when compared to cities with the best emissions scores. Though there’s not enough evidence in this study to support a direct link between the cost and cleanliness of electrical grids, it’s no surprise to find that they do trade off with each other to some extent.

This is one of the key takeaways from the report for the simple reason that running cost, rather than pure environmental benefit, is what will drive the EV market beyond its early adopter niche. And as utilities invest in ever-greener powerplants in hopes of improving the environmental performance of EVs, running costs will rise. And as EVs become more popular, increased demand on the grid will further drive up prices. This tradeoff encapsulates the dilemma of all EV stimulus: the hoped-for environmental benefits are dependent on the mainstream economic viability of EVs, which in turn depends on cheaper (rather than cleaner) power and much, much cheaper EVs. The UCS report’s conclusion attempts to square this circle by pushing EV adoption as the overriding concern, noting

Of course, cleaning up the nation’s electricity production won’t deliver large reductions in the transportation sector’s emissions and oil consumption unless electric vehicles become a market success. While they are now coming onto the market in a much bigger way than ever before, EVs still face many hurdles, including higher up-front costs than gasoline vehicles. Lower fueling costs for EVs, however, provide an important incentive for purchasing them, and our cost analysis of 50 cities across the country shows that EV owners can start saving money immediately on fuel costs by using electricity in place of gasoline.

While this is true enough, it fully ignores how the market works. For one thing, the fuel savings touted in the report are in comparison to an “average gasoline compact vehicle,” and therefore fails to account for most of the market segments. Consumers buy cars that fill their needs, and many Americans need cars larger than a compact. Furthermore, though those savings are estimated to be as much as $1,220 per year (for a Nissan Leaf), these savings do not include amortization of the EV’s up-front cost premium. Consumers will see “immediate savings” on fuel costs, but will be far behind on total ownership cost for years.

Currently the EV market is truly a “green” market, as potential EV consumers are currently motivated by the desire to reduce their carbon emissions. But EVs simply won’t have much of an impact on national emissions until they offer the kind of “green” that actually motivates consumers: money, in the form of real savings. As long as federal and state governments focus, as the UCS has, on carbon emissions, EVs simply won’t find much of a market. If, as the UCS claims, reductions in transportation-sector C02 emissions require mass EV adoption as a prerequisite, the carbon question is currently little more than a distraction. Environmental benefits must give way to economic reality, lest all of the possible “green” benefits of EVs remain a permanent mirage.

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Blind Spot: Catching Up With Chrysler http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-catching-up-with-chrysler/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-catching-up-with-chrysler/#comments Tue, 27 Mar 2012 22:26:30 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=436754 With the government still waiting to see how much it will get out of its equity in General Motors, The General seems to be attracting more of the media commentary than Chrysler these days. And not without good reason: GM saw the greatest drop in market share last month of any Detroit automaker, its government-hyped […]

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With the government still waiting to see how much it will get out of its equity in General Motors, The General seems to be attracting more of the media commentary than Chrysler these days. And not without good reason: GM saw the greatest drop in market share last month of any Detroit automaker, its government-hyped Volt is flopping, Opel continues to be an open sore and it can’t help but flaunt its cluelessness about youth marketing. But interest in GM’s shortcomings seems to be driven by little more than election-year political implications, which Chrysler was able to avoid by borrowing cash and misleadingly claiming to have squared up with the American taxpayer. After all, Chrysler is facing just as many challenges as GM, if not more. And despite having formally closed the bailout chapter of its history, Chrysler’s performance still bears on the decision to rescue America’s weakest major automaker.

Evidence that Chrysler is receiving something of a free pass from the media is not difficult to find, with Sunday’s CBS interview with CEO Sergio Marchionne serving as Exhibit A. A fluffy profile of the Fiat/Chrysler boss, the CBS piece is so lacking in journalistic rigor that ends up providing more misinformation than verifiable facts. The “paid back the loans with interest” line makes an appearance, without any qualifications that might have explained the full truth of Chrysler’s “payback.” Another straight-up whopper: Sergio’s assessment that Chrysler can “afford” to screw up on a single car. Chrysler only has one new post-Fiat car on the immediate horizon, the 2013 Dodge Dart… if Chrysler has “screwed up” that car, it will be a PR disaster that the company might not survive. Besides, with Fiat 500s piling up on dealer lots (82 days supply as of 3/1, down from 132 days supply on 2/1) despite $500 rebates or 0% financing, it seems that Fiat/Chrysler has already used up the one “screw up” that Marchionne says it can afford.

Speaking of the Dart, Marchionne claims that the crucial compact is “mechanically outstanding” and has “nothing to apologize for”… and yet, it appears that it’s already facing some challenges. Earlier this month, Marchionne said he was bumping the Dart’s rollout from April 1 to “avoid being jinxed” by April Fool’s day (Allpar notes that the April 1 launch was a “delay” from the planned January launch). That excuse is flimsy on face value, but the fact that Mopar will only build 2,000 Darts in May and that full dealer availability won’t finalize until June shows that there are probably bigger problems under the surface than mere superstition. And Dodge boss Reid Bigland seems to already be turning down the wick on expectations, saying the delay is

“not a concern. Given the size of the segment throughout North America and the enthusiasm for the Dart, we think it’s going to go OK.”

What Bigland leaves out is that, although the segment is large, the competition among compact sedans is fierce. And the Dart is likely not as well-positioned as CBS implies when it claims its “base price just under $16,000 with 40 miles to the gallon.” The EPA doesn’t have fuel economy numbers for the Dart, but with an efficient 1.4 Turbo engine listed as an option, it seems highly unlikely that a 40 MPG highway version of the Dart will be available at the base price (at least until a 9-speed transmission becomes available next year). Oh, and the government’s condition that Fiat build a 40 MPG Chrysler only requires 40 MPG combined unadjusted, a benchmark that is far less than 40 MPG EPA, and barely competitive with compact sedans already on the market. And with only 120,000 or so units of production planned at Belvidere, and exports planned from there to 40 different markets, it seems that Chrysler isn’t banking on competitive sales figures (Focus and Cruze have been selling over 20k units per month).

But if you dig deeper, you find that the mainstream media’s breathless boosterism is sharply contradicted in the online press, where rumors of trouble in Auburn Hills are starting to pile up. Over at Autoextremist, the auto industry insider’s outsider is posting emails from sources like “Anonymous in Auburn Hills,” which indicate that there are either a few truly bad apples at Chrysler or (as the Autoextremist himself concludes) the Fiat-Chrysler marriage is facing serious issues. “Anonymous” writes

All you need to do is work at CTC [Chrysler Technical Center] and you will see just how correct AE [Autoextremist] is on this Fiat issue.

In that building resides a morass of poor decisions, poor planning, poor time management, and ass backwards 80′s era engineering think…

…They want to build good cars but can’t make a decision to save their live.

My God, they can’t even get their CAD system figured out! I mean who is stupid enough to introduce a new CAD system on a whim?? did they not think you need time to integrate all of the other computer related systems?

It is a joke of epic proportions.

Another AE reader adds:

Arrogant. Irrational. Belligerent. Such a perfect description of Fiat management, [Autoextremist] must be moonlighting within the walls of CTC somewhere…

…Fiat practices finger-snap management as its true core philosophy. Cut product development time in half! How? Just cut it in half, easy! What testing should be eliminated? What efficiencies should/will allow this? No answer. Build a new production line but with half the capital funding! How? Easy, just spend half as much! You get the picture.

In an industry that so closely controls its PR, this burst of leaks is evidence enough that some serious dissatisfaction is brewing at Fiat/Chrysler. Add the Dart’s delay to this, and the emerging picture at Chrysler is not of a company bound for great things. More troubling still is the counterpoint between these worrying signs and the dizzying ambition of Fiat/Chrysler’s new product development plans. The Dart is built on a widened version of Fiat’s C-EVO platform, but according to Allpar, that platform will be stretched further and converted to rear-drive to accommodate the forthcoming midsized Alfa Giulia and Dodge Avenger replacement. Oh, and the LX platform also has a front/rear-drive replacement under development as well, the E-EVO, which will underpin everything from minivans to an Alfa sports sedan. According to an Allpar source,

This new D architecture is a joint project, but it’s being developed in Detroit with Fiat engineers who have been flown over to be embedded permanently in the project. … This decision (having a RWD D-segment architecture) was a costly proposition, and they took a good two years of tinkering between finance and marketing before they finally reached the decision to go ahead with this. … E-Evo was discarded [for this purpose] last year, when it became obvious that if you shorten it too much you can’t produce an aerodynamic, sexy looking D-segment car, on that huge beast.

So, an apparently-dysfunctional, trans-Atlantic team is developing expensive, complex D- and an E-segment platforms that are convertible between front-drive, rear-drive and all-wheel-drive, and will underpin mass-market offerings as well as premium cars. If this sounds oddly familiar, it should: it’s like a worst-of mashup of the cross-cultural issues of the DCX days and the engineering overreach of the early LH platform development (which Bob Lutz describes as having been “trapped in the classical ‘more is more’ planning maze”). And at the root of this mind-boggling complexity is yet another unsolved issue: Fiat/Chrysler’s bloated brand portfolio, which demands this ultimate (and expensive) platform flexibility.

Meanwhile, the context for all this is even worse, as Fiat faces a crushing downturn in the European market, made worse by the fact that Fiat is dependent on the Mediterranean markets that are being hit the hardest. Fiat lost half a billion dollars last year, its stock is on a 12-month downward spiral, it has frozen European investments, and it is grappling with numerous union issues (including a hauler strike that could cost it 10% market share in Italy). And with essentially no presence in China to offset European contraction, Marchionne’s solution is another alliance with yet another struggling automaker, like Mazda or Suzuki. But the “tying two rocks together to see if they float” plan clearly isn’t a path forward, and more merging will only wreak further havoc on Fiat/Chrysler’s troubled culture. Meanwhile, Fiat is only just starting [sub] its third attempt at a Chinese production JV (building Fiat-branded Darts), and it’s moving into Russia just as that market’s growth slows.

With huge losses likely to come out of Europe, and giant outlays likely on both Chinese and Russian expansion as well as investments in complex, multi-purpose platforms, Fiat-Chrysler has a seriously tough row to hoe over the next year or so. Successes will have to come from its stronghold in Brazil, which is seeing disappointing sales numbers so far this year, or from the US. With only the Dart coming down the pike, one hopes that its delays yielded serious results and that it makes an unequivocal case for Chrysler’s Fiat-led future. Otherwise, we could easily find ourselves here a year from now, wondering once again if Fiat/Chrysler is going to make it through another 12 months.

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Blind Spot: Obama No Longer Dreams Of Electric Cars http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-obama-no-longer-dreams-of-electric-cars/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-obama-no-longer-dreams-of-electric-cars/#comments Tue, 13 Mar 2012 00:00:31 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=434742 “The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.” Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? At the High School I attended, progress reports were never a good thing. Halfway through each term, students who were averaging a D or lower would receive a print-out of their grade accompanied by […]

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“The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”

Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

At the High School I attended, progress reports were never a good thing. Halfway through each term, students who were averaging a D or lower would receive a print-out of their grade accompanied by a line from the teacher explaining how the miscreant in question was failing to live up to expectations. True to form, the White House’s just-released “One Year Progress Report” [PDF] on President Obama’s “Blueprint For A Secure Energy Agenda” includes some devastating evidence of abject failure. But unlike my post-progress report conversations with the parental stakeholders, Obama has a lot more to explain to voters than a simple “insufficient homework turned in.”

Just over a year ago,  in his 2011 State Of The Union, President Obama unveiled plan to stimulate “One Million Electric Vehicles By 2015,” arguing that

“With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015″

Shortly thereafter, his Department of Energy released a report that touted wildly-optimistic production goals for several pure-electric cars, concluding that

Reaching the goal is not likely to be constrained by production capacity. Major vehicle manufacturers have announced (or been the subject of media reports) that indicate a cumulative electric drive vehicle manufacturing capacity of over 1.2 million vehicles through 2015.

Strong incentives, research and development, and assistance in establishing manufacturing and infrastructure is underway or planned. These activities directly support consumer demand of these technologies, and mitigate some of the uncertainty associated with the large-scale adoption of electric drive vehicles.

That argument became conclusively moot this year, when production of the Chevrolet Volt was stopped for the third time in its short lifetime, as unwanted cars piled up on dealer lots. Though the Volt has been defined as a symbol of GM’s bailout, it is even more politically significant as a component of Obama’s bold million-plugin plan. In last year’s report, the Department of Energy estimated that 120,000 Volts would be put on the road in the US this year, when the Volt hs actually only just broke 1,000 units sold per month for the first time in February. That 90% discrepancy between expectation and reality is crucial to Obama’s pledge, as the “1.2m production capacity through 2015″ that the DOE took for granted included some 505,000 Volts (at 120k/year from 2012-2015). With the Volt selling at 10% of DOE estimates, the entire goal falls apart (the next-closest vehicle, Nissan’s Leaf, isn’t estimated to hit 100,000 units per year until 2014).

Having seen the Volt’s underperformance coming, I’ve been wondering when the Obama Administration would recognize reality and admit that its goal was out of reach. But this being politics, you can’t just hand ammunition to your opponents. Admissions of failure must be couched in obfuscation and swaddled in unrelated good news. Which brings us to the just-released “Progress Report,” which is something like the polar opposite of landing on an aircraft carrier festooned with “Mission Accomplished” banners.

A sunny, upbeat document, the “Progress Report” introduces itself with wide-eyed optimism:

On the one-year anniversary of your Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, which outlined your goals for American energy, we wanted to present a report on the significant progress we have made. During the last year alone, we established new incentives to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production; proposed the toughest fuel economy standards for cars and trucks in history; provided millions of Americans with efficient and affordable transportation choices; launched new programs to improve energy efficiency in our homes, buildings, public transit, aviation and roadway systems; and took unprecedented steps to make the United States a leader in the clean energy
race.

But if we skip ahead to the section regarding EVs, we find that all the sugary good news is just helping mask the rank scent of failure. So, how does a sitting president admit failure? It’s as easy as writing

“By 2015, the United States will be able to produce enough batteries and components to support one million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.”

Notice the key difference: then, the argument was that government action would put a million EVs on the road, now the argument is that the infrastructure will be in place to meet the goal. Oh, and in case you’re a fellow ADD-sufferer, remember that the DOE determined just one year ago that

Reaching the goal is not likely to be constrained by production capacity.

In essence this report repeats the exact same thing. The difference is simply that a year ago, the President could pretend that the market would simply soak up whatever number of EVs the car companies (most of whom had received some form of government support) said they would build. Now even the most hardened partisan can’t maintain such obvious self-delusion, as the demand for EVs (the Volt in particular) has been proven to be well below expectations. This failure is made explicit in the Progress Report, which notes that

in March 2012, the President launched a clean energy grand challenge to make electric-powered vehicles as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered vehicles for the average American family within a decade.

In short, the message has gone from “thanks to government intervention, the future is now” to “thanks to government intervention, the future might be here in a decade.” Or, to quote a certain former presidential candidate, “whoops!”

Some might argue that this is a textbook example of government wasting money trying to affect the market, and a clear sign that the market is going to do what it wants regardless of our publicly-funded exercises in futility. Instead, President Obama is “doubling down” by requesting a billion dollars be spent on a “Community Deployment” scheme aimed at boosting demand for “advanced technology vehicles” through local partnerships, and tax credits for advanced technology vehicles be bumped to a maximum of $10,000. To be fair, the retreat from EVs is reflected in the new “technology neutral” approach, which doesn’t limit subsidies to EVs but

allow[s] communities to determine if electrification, natural gas, or biofuels would be the best fit.

But the proposed changes to the consumer tax credit [PDF] have some very vague and confusing stipulations, namely that

(1) the vehicle operates primarily on an alternative to petroleum; (2) as of the January 1, 2012, there are few vehicles in operation in the U.S. using the same technology as such vehicle.

The vagueness of those rules makes them hard to interpret, but it seems that clause (1) excludes high-efficiency, small battery plug-ins like the Prius Plug-In while clause (2) could well exclude natural gas vehicles (there were well over 100k NGVs on the road as of 2010). In which case, this policy is merely a continuation of the attempt to create a market for EVs (and since we’re talking disappointing technologies, possibly hydrogen cars). The community deployment scheme seems more technologically neutral, but is flawed in the extent that it assumes that local solutions will be more broadly applicable. Besides, most local governments with strong “green car” demand potential are already incentivizing public EV charging stations and the like. And don’t get me started about the fact that the government is even pretending that biofuels are a serious solution to either environmental or energy security concerns.

As gas prices go up, we could see EV and plug-in sales improve, but it’s clear that there won’t be one million EVs on American roads by 2015. Especially with policy appearing to shift towards a more “technology neutral” mode, there is a very real threat that the huge oversupply of natural gas could create a short term market for NGVs that could doom EVs for another decade or more. If the goal of Obama’s energy policy were to improve energy independence or help the efficient use of resources, this would be good news as it’s much easier and cheaper to build (and therefore, subsidize) NGVs than EVs (even without considering the low cost of natural gas itself). Unfortunately, we have already made a significant national investment in EV/battery technology, which satisfies yet another political constituency: environmentalists.

Without clearly communicated goals, government policies will never gain the credibility with markets they need to impact. And given President Obama’s track record so far, it’s clear  he needs to more clearly admit that his EV initiative has failed and express a clear set of goals for America’s transportation and energy sectors. Unfortunately, the fact that that he’s chosen to admit that the EV dream is over in such an oblique manner indicates that expecting such forthrightness would seem more than a little naive. All of which simply confirms that this issue, like so many others facing the nation, is no longer a question of policy, but of politics.

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Blind Spot: The Twilight Of The Volt http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-the-twilight-of-the-volt/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/03/blind-spot-the-twilight-of-the-volt/#comments Mon, 05 Mar 2012 00:44:30 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=433724  “Do you want to accompany? or go on ahead? or go off alone? … One must know what one wants and that one wants” Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight Of The Idols This week’s news that GM would stop production of the Chevrolet Volt for the third time in its brief lifespan came roaring out of the […]

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 “Do you want to accompany? or go on ahead? or go off alone? … One must know what one wants and that one wants”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight Of The Idols

This week’s news that GM would stop production of the Chevrolet Volt for the third time in its brief lifespan came roaring out of the proverbial blind spot. Having watched the Volt’s progress closely from gestation through each month’s sales results, it was no secret to me that the Volt was seriously underperforming to expectations. But in the current media environment, anything that happens three times is a trend, and the latest shutdown (and, even more ominously, the accompanying layoffs) was unmistakeable. Not since succumbing to government-organized bankruptcy and bailout has GM so publicly cried “uncle” to the forces of the market, and I genuinely expected The General to continue to signal optimism for the Volt’s long-term prospects. After all, sales in February were up dramatically, finally breaking the 1,000 unit per month barrier. With gasoline prices on the march, this latest shutdown was far from inevitable.

And yet, here we are. Now that GM is undeniably signaling that the Volt is a Corvette-style halo car, with similar production and sales levels, my long-standing skepticism about the Volt’s chances seems to be validated. But in the years since GM announced its intention to build the Volt, this singular car has become woven into the history and yes, the mythology of the bailout era. Now, at the apparent end of its mass-market ambitions, I am struck not with a sense of schadenfreude, but of bewilderment. If the five year voyage of Volt hype is over, we have a lot of baggage to unpack.

When a history of the Volt is written, it will be difficult not to conclude that the Volt has been the single most politicized automobile since the Corvair. Seemingly due to timing alone, GM’s first serious environmental halo car became an icon of government intervention in private industry, a perception that is as true as it is false. I hoped to capture this tension in a July 2010 Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which I argued that

the Volt appears to be exactly the kind of green-at-all-costs car that some opponents of the bailout feared the government might order G.M. to build. Unfortunately for this theory, G.M. was already committed to the Volt when it entered bankruptcy.

But by that time, the Volt was already so completely transformed into a political football, the second sentence of this quote was entirely ignored by political critics on the right. The culture of partisanship being what it is in this country, any nuance to my argument was lost in the selective quoting on one side and the mockery of my last name on the other. One could argue that that this politicization was unnecessary or counter-productive, but it was also inevitable.

The Volt began life as a blast from GM’s Motorama past: a futuristic four-place coupe concept with a unique drivetrain (which still defies apples-to-apples efficiency comparisons with other cars), a fast development schedule and constantly-changing specifications, price points and sales expectations. It’s important to remember that the Volt was controversial as a car practically from the moment GM announced (and then began changing) production plans, becoming even more so when the production version emerged looking nothing like the concept. But it wasn’t until President Obama’s auto task force concluded that the Volt seemed doomed to lose money, and yet made no effort to suspend its development as a condition for the bailout, that a car-guy controversy began to morph into a mainstream political issue.

At that point, most of the car’s fundamental controversies were well known, namely its price, size, elusive efficiency rating, and competition. Well before the car was launched, it was not difficult to predict its challenges on the market, even without the added headwinds of ideological objections (which should have been mitigated by the fact that they were actually calling for government intervention in GM’s product plans while decrying the same). But GM’s relentless hype, combined with Obama’s regular rhetorical references to the Volt, fueled the furor. Then, just two months after Volt sales began trickle in, Obama’s Department of Energy released a still-unrepudiated document, claiming that 505,000 Volts would be sold in the US by 2015 (including 120,000 this year). By making the Volt’s unrealistic sales goals the centerpiece of a plan to put a million plug-in-vehicles on the road, the Obama Administration cemented the Volt’s political cross-branding.

When GM continued to revise its 2012 US sales expectations to the recent (and apparently still wildly-unrealistic) 45,000 units, I asked several high-level GM executives why the DOE didn’t adjust its estimates as well. But rather than definitively re-calibrate the DOE’s expectations, they refused to touch the subject. The government, they implied, could believe what it wanted. Having seen its CEO removed by the President, GM’s timid executive culture was resigned to the Volt’s politicized status, and would never make things awkward for its salesman-in-chief. And even now, with production of the Volt halted for the third time, GM continues to play into the Volt’s politicized narrative: does anyone think it is coincidence that The General waited until three days after the Michigan Republican primary (and a bailout-touting Obama speech) to cut Volt production for the third time?

Of course, having used the Volt as a political prop itself from the moment CEO Rick Wagoner drove a development mule version to congressional hearings as penance for traveling to the previous hearing in a private jet, GM is now trying to portray the Volt as a martyr at the hands of out-of-control partisanship. And the Volt’s father Bob Lutz  certainly does have a point when he argues that the recent Volt fire controversy was blown out of proportion by political hacks. But blaming the Volt’s failures on political pundits gives them far too much credit, ignores GM’s own politicization of the Volt, and misses the real causes of the Volt’s current, unenviable image.

The basic problem with the Volt isn’t that it’s a bad car that nobody could ever want; it is, in fact, quite an engineering achievement and a rather impressive drive. And if GM had said all along that it would serve as an “anti-Corvette,” selling in low volumes at a high price, nobody could now accuse it of failure. Instead, GM fueled totally unrealistic expectations for Volt, equating it with a symbol of its rebirth even before collapsing into bailout. The Obama administration simply took GM’s hype at face value, and saw it as a way to protect against the (flawed) environmentalist argument that GM deserved to die because of “SUV addiction” alone. And in the transition from corporate sales/image hype to corporatist political hype, the Volt’s expectations were driven to ever more unrealistic heights, from which they are now tumbling. Beyond the mere sales disappointment, the Volt has clearly failed to embody any cultural changes GM might have undergone in its dark night of the soul, instead carrying on The General’s not-so-proud tradition of moving from one overhyped short-term savior to the next.

Now, as in the Summer of 2010, I can’t help but compare the Volt with its nemesis and inspiration, the Toyota Prius. When the Toyota hybrid went on sale in the US back in 2000, it was priced nearly the same as it is today (in non-inflation-adjusted dollars), and was not hyped as a savior. Instead, Toyota accepted losses on early sales, and committed itself to building the Prius’s technology and brand over the long term. With this approach, GM could have avoided the Volt’s greatest criticism (its price) and embarrassment (sales shortfalls), and presented the extended-range-electric concept as a long-term investment.

Even now, GM can still redefine the Volt as a long-term play that will eventually be worth its development and PR costs… but only as long as it candidly takes ownership of its shortcomings thus far and re-sets expectations to a credible level. And whether The General will defy and embarrass its political patrons by destroying the “million EVs by 2015″ house of cards in order to do so, remains very much to be seen. One thing is certain: as long as it puts PR and political considerations before the long-term development of healthy technology and brands,  GM will struggle with a negative and politicized image. And the Volt will be seen not as a symbol of GM’s long-term vision and commitment, but of its weakness, desperation, inconstancy and self-delusion.

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Blind Spot: Electric Cars And “The Freedom Thing” http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/02/blind-spot-electric-cars-and-the-freedom-thing/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/02/blind-spot-electric-cars-and-the-freedom-thing/#comments Tue, 28 Feb 2012 01:39:55 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=433104 Editor’s note: While our erstwhile Editor-in-Chief, Edward Niedermeyer, is on sabbatical, he will continue to weigh in on automotive issues in a (hopefully) weekly column entitled Blind Spot. This is the first installment. Back in 2008, as the worlds of automobiles and politics headed towards a dramatic collision, the founder of this site and I […]

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Editor’s note: While our erstwhile Editor-in-Chief, Edward Niedermeyer, is on sabbatical, he will continue to weigh in on automotive issues in a (hopefully) weekly column entitled Blind Spot. This is the first installment.

Back in 2008, as the worlds of automobiles and politics headed towards a dramatic collision, the founder of this site and I had a series of conversations about political perspectives on automobiles. Though these conversations were wide-ranging, I kept coming back to the same conclusion: for all of the talk about guns as “tools of freedom,” it seemed to me that cars were even more worthy of the title. After all, most people use an automobile in the pursuit of freedom and mobility every day, whereas guns are (relatively) rarely used to secure individual rights.

But embracing the car’s role as a tool of freedom raises a number of troubling questions, most of them inherent to the very cause of liberty. Though cars make us more free as individuals, we must recognize that it comes at the cost of (among other things) dependence on gasoline, an “addiction” that many now seek freedom from. As new energy sources and mobility concepts become available, citizens will have to navigate a complex thicket of issues as they seek to maximize the freedom that personal mobility offers.

That private transportation fundamentally increases personal liberty is difficult to argue against. On the theoretical level, it’s not difficult to understand how private mobility frees individuals to choose where they live and work, empowering individual choice over collective planning. And for those who see humans as essentially freedom-seeking creatures, the headlong rush towards private car ownership in developing countries could be a sign of the car’s inherently liberating power.

But as is so often the case with expanding liberty, the democratization of the automobile has a flip side. Indeed, the very expansion of the global auto market puts pressure on our energy sources, creating something of a zero-sum global market for private transportation.

Even more troubling for proponents of the car as a tool of freedom, the expansion of the global car market in developing countries is being accompanied by a transition away from automobiles in developed countries. Beyond even the impact of rising gasoline prices, social, cultural and technological conditions are making automobiles less of a liberating force in developed nations. Particularly among young people, automobile ownership is increasingly seen as a burden rather than a freedom.

For some, the answer to this automotive apathy lies in new technology, most notably in electric cars (EVs, or electric vehicles). New technology, cleaner energy sources and a more high-tech image will, argue EV boosters, make cars more relevant and sustainable to new generations of developed world consumers. But can electric cars really serve as tools of personal freedom?

On the most superficial level, EVs offer considerably less immediate freedom than gas-powered cars. Once its battery is used, an EV must sit immobile for 6-12 hours before it can drive again, limiting (if nothing else) the perception that ones car could cross a major land mass efficiently should one need it to. This gut-level reaction is, among admitted fans of freedom, a major stumbling block to the acceptance of EVs.

Add to the EV’s fundamental limitations the fact that the market for them is being stimulated by government tax dollars, and i shouldn’t be surprising that EVs have become something of a punchline on the right. After all, a gut-level appreciation for continent-crossing levels of freedom and an appreciation for the free market tend to go hand-in-hand, and the EV fails on both counts.

But by making EVs out to be nothing more than a patronage plot based on Global Warming hysteria, the political right does a disservice to both the EV and itself (however true individual accusations may be). For a significant number of Americans, the EV holds the long-term promise of an almost unheard-of level of freedom from external energy sources: what could be more enticing to the lover of freedom than the idea of local private transportation powered by solar panels on your roof? And on a national level, the hidden costs to taxpayers of gasoline dependence aren’t often brought up by the deficit hawks (or hawks of any kind, for that matter), but they are very real.

In the real world, though, microgeneration and EVs themselves are too expensive to be available to all but the most wealthy freedom freaks. And frustratingly, the most convincing solution to the EV’s problems with range and cost, namely battery lease/swap infrastructure like Better Place’s, are hardly a libertarian dream come true. Only by centralizing grid management and paying for a battery swap infrastructure, a task necessitating government involvement, do EVs make sense on a large scale.

This leaves the EV in a frustrating impasse with the value of personal liberty. Though holding profound promise for self-sustainable private transport, the range-limited, heavily-subsidized reality is as bad for many lovers of liberty as its obvious cure, the “natural monopoly” of a centralized swap/lease entity.

And yet, if we look to the markets, we see it moving toward electrification. The number and variety of hybrids available today would astound American observers of the introduction of the Prius just over ten years ago. Those who believe in the market’s wisdom can not deny the steadily increasing electrification of the car market, nor ignore its implications. And as is ever the case when technology and markets shift, those seeking to maximize their personal freedoms will have to choose carefully from a new set of imperfect choices.

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