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. Tue, 21 Oct 2014 10:00:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0 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 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: 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.

The post Blind Spot: The Twilight Of The Volt appeared first on The Truth About Cars.

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