The Truth About Cars » Customer Relations The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:25:17 +0000 en-US hourly 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 (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 » Customer Relations GM Changes Mind About Airbag Recall, Ignition Switches Wed, 30 Apr 2014 13:00:32 +0000 2013-Chevy-Traverse-Low-Angle

Automotive News reports General Motors, already being hammered from all sides from its delayed recall of 2.59 million vehicles affected by a defect in the ignition switch, issued a customer-satisfaction campaign in mid-March of this year for 1.2 million crossovers whose airbags may fail to deploy in a side-impact crash, an issue known to the automaker since 2008. Once the National Highway Traffic Safety learned of the decision, however, GM did an about-face and upgraded the campaign to a full recall. In addition, its Executive Field Action Decision Committee considered a full recall as early as November 2010, opting to issue service bulletins four times between then and 2012 instead, which spokesman Alan Adler claims satisfied the issue thoroughly without the need for increased action.

Bloomberg says GM is tying its executive incentive packages based on earnings, global market share and quality. The plan was originally announced in February as a work-in-progress during a statement about a proposed pay package of $14.4 million with $10 million in long-term compensation for CEO Mary Barra, which will be decided upon during the automaker’s annual stockholders meeting in June. In the current announcement, GM believes that linking executive pay “to the achievement of both short- and long-term goals” will serve as “an important cornerstone of employee engagement.”

As for the switch itself, its time may have finally come as GM considers dropping the ignition key for push-button start throughout the automaker’s entire range, a technology found in 72 percent of all 2014 vehicles sold in the United States. The move would put it in line with consumers who view the button “as a convenience and a luxury feature” according to senior editor Bill Visnic, adding that the ignition switch “is a very fussy, electro-mechanical part that’s seen [by consumers] as less reliable.” Potential issues surround the push-button start, however, including length of time between action and reaction, as well as drivers remembering to shut the engine down prior to departing the vehicle.

Finally, Automotive News reports most dealers may never see a recalled vehicle enter their service bays, as many affected owners either never receive the recall notice or receive the document, but end up tossing or otherwise forgetting about the recall. Further, even with a recall in the headlines like the one GM is still working through, some owners may not have the inclination to go through with repairs, whether due to time, other priorities or apathy.

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GM Dealers Deal With Part Backlog, CEO Asked To Back Rental Car Bill Wed, 09 Apr 2014 14:03:25 +0000 ChevyDealership03.jpg

Automotive News reports the repairs of some 2.6 million vehicles affected by the 2014 General Motors ignition switch recall will be delayed by one week as the needed part slowly enters into the automaker’s dealership network. Though most dealers thought they would be receiving the part Monday, GM spokesman Kevin Kelly insisted the part was set to arrive sometime during “the week of April 7″:

We plan to send letters this week informing affected customers that parts are arriving at dealerships and to schedule a service appointment with their dealer. Repairs are likely to begin to follow soon after the customer letter mailing.

Until then, dealerships may face service backlogs, especially with affected vehicles already on the lot that cannot be sold until they are repaired, which can only happen once customer vehicles go through the 30-minute swap. On the other hand, while dealers have noticed some frustration from their customers, the majority of their base was found to be patient with the status of the repair plan.

Over in Washington, D.C., The Detroit Press reports Senator Barbara Boxer of California sent a letter to GM CEO Mary Barra asking her to back a bill that would keep recalled rental cars under recall off of the road. The bill would require affected rentals to be grounded within 24 to 48 hours upon receipt of a safety recall notice, as well as establish a temporary protocol evaluating safety risk if parts are not available right away, and allow the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the oversight to investigate rental company safety practices for the first time.

Though the bill — named after two sisters who lost their lives in 2004 when their rental car caught fire and crashed into a truck — has seen support by rental companies, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — where GM is a member — has stymied the legislation out of a fear that automakers would be forced to fix rental fleets first before individual-owned vehicles, as well as potential lawsuits from the rental companies over lost revenues.

Detroit Free Press reports the NHTSA is calling upon engineers to be the agency’s eyes and ears in the battle against defects like the one linked to the current recall crisis. Lead attorney Kevin Vincent laid his case out before attendees of this year’s SAE World Congress:

Each manufacturer is actually responsible for identifying defects… and promptly reporting those defects to NHTSA. The message I have delivered to senior lawyers at the automakers is that they need to have practices and procedures in place so that when they find a problem, they will respond.

The first line of defense against safety defects is not my agency — not NHTSA. You are truly the first line of defense… to prevent safety defects from reaching the American public.

The safety agency has been taken to task as of late regarding the GM recall as well as those related to Jeep, and has been asked by the Center for Auto Safety to investigate an airbag deployment issue with 2003 through 2010 Chevrolet Impalas.

Automotive News says the 2014 Chevrolet Equinox and its GMC Terrain twin both received a top safety pick+ award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in surviving the group’s new small-overlap crash test designed for midsize SUVs. The results were linked to improvements in the front structure and door-hinge pillars.

Finally, The Detroit News reports GM will pay a dividend of 30 cents per share for Q2 2014 on June 26 to all shareholders of record as of June 10. The dividend is the second consecutive payment made by the automaker to shareholders — the first, worth 30 cents/share for Q1 2014 earnings, was paid last month — and will cost $1.8 billion annually.

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GM Considers Volt Battery Redesign, Halts European Deliveries, Will Miss US Sales Goal, Recall Or Buyback Possible Thu, 01 Dec 2011 20:03:52 +0000

In the comments section of yesterday’s post on the ongoing Chevy Volt fire investigation, I noted that GM might

retrofit Volts with crash protection that can maintain battery integrity in all crash conditions… Mary Barra has said that GM is

“continuing to work with NHTSA to investigate additional actions to reduce or eliminate the potential of a post-crash electrical fire.”

I think some kind of update on the battery integrity front is inevitable, but we shall see…

Sure enough, today Reuters is running an interview with GM CEO Dan Akerson, who says that European deliveries of Opel-branded Volts (called Ampera) would be delayed pending NHTSA’s investigation, and that maybe, just possibly, the Volt’s battery might have to be redesigned. Says Akerson:

We want to assure the safety of our customers, of our buyers, and so we’re just going to take a time out, if you will, in terms of redesigning the battery possibly

Unfortunately, Akerson’s mangled syntax makes it tough to know if GM is really going to redesign the Volt’s battery, or what the “time out” in question means. He does tell the AP [via The WSJ [sub]] that a recall or buyback are options as well. Though redesigning the Volt’s battery could be expensive and devastating for sales, GM’s current post-crash safety protocol is incredibly human resources-intensive, and likely very costly as well. And the fact that GM is even considering redesigning the Volt for safety a year after its release is going to create a huge sales and marketing challenge anyway. Volt production edged down by 199 units in November, and now GM’s sales boss Don Johnson tells the Detroit News that the Volt will miss its 10,000 unit 2011 sales goal. At this point, GM may just want to take a mulligan on the Volt’s first year, redesign the battery, and relaunch the thing.

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This Is The Chevy Volt’s Post-Crash Safety Protocol Wed, 30 Nov 2011 22:18:19 +0000

TTAC has received the following protocol, developed by GM in the wake of the June Volt fire at a NHTSA facility in Wisconsin, from a GM source and has confirmed its legitimacy with a second GM source. Though the procedure may be refined based on the findings of NHTSA’s latest round of tests, it gives a good picture of what GM currently does to ensure the safety of Volt driver and passengers as well as rescue workers, towing company workers and salvage yards. And, I have to say, it puts some of my fears about this safety scare to rest. It hadn’t occurred to me that GM’s Onstar system could provide opportunities to respond to crashes in real time, and apparently the system provides a wide variety of data with which GM’s “corporate SWAT team” can tailor its response to any Volt crash event. Hit the jump for the full procedure.

  • Chevy Volt sends Onstar message of just occurred crash event.
  • Onstar team notified of Volt crash and immediately implements standard crash protocol to assist vehicle operator
  • Onstar immediately pulls key crash criteria from crash notification, i.e. vehicle speed, vehicles conditions (rollover), etc
  • Onstar team notifies Volt Battery Team Leader of crash event including key vehicle conditions
  • Volt Battery team leader works with Onstar to ping Volt and check additional data if appropriate (higher severity crash events, battery data, etc)
  • Volt Battery team Leader determines if high crash severity standards met for depowering or if there is any question about battery severity level.  If yes to either, Battery team representative is sent to crash site
  • Volt Battery team works with Volt advisor to contact Vehicle Owner and/or determine vehicle location
  • Volt Battery representative obtains approval from owner and then proceeds to investigate the crashed Volt and depowers battery if deemed necessary
  • Post Crash Volt stable and ready for disposition
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Ford: Wait, We Fixed MyFordTouch! Mon, 07 Nov 2011 20:18:33 +0000

MyFordTouch was supposed to build on the SYNC system’s momentum, extending Ford’s edge in mass-market infotainment gizmology. Instead, MyFord nearly killed the golden egg-laying goose, by earning Ford a sharp downgrade from Consumer Reports and widespread criticism. Ford has decided that 40-minute training sessions weren’t going to cut it as a response to the complaints that the system was balky and confusing, and The Blue Oval is now trumpeting the all-new for 2013 version of MyFordTouch. Because, in the words of Ford’s spokes-interior-designer-person

As you can see, with a software platform like SYNC, it’s easy to continuously improve and upgrade your system.

You know, in comparison to the all-new Ford Escape she’s sitting in. It’s still not quite as easy as a computer software update: instead of downloading the reflash, you have to go into a dealer to get the upgrade. Meanwhile, this is just the latest hurdle in the hot-hot in-car gizmo side of the business. The big one comes in 2014, when the government issue rules on distraction-mitigation in voice-activated in-car systems. That could make this minor public beta testing fiasco look like nothing…

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“I Should Call Aston Martin And Ask Them Not To Put This Button In My Next Car” Sun, 30 Oct 2011 16:29:03 +0000

Here’s hoping your weekend motoring has been a little bit safer than surfboard designer Roberto Ricci’s…

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Chevy Hopes To Build A Magic Kingdom In Southern California Fri, 21 Oct 2011 18:58:56 +0000

In hopes of escaping Chevrolet’s recent past as what he calls a “truck funded, Midwestern and Southern” business, GM’s Mark Reuss is leading a revamp of Chevy’s Southern California retail environment in order to establish a stronger presence in that key market. Now that Chevy offers higher-quality, more-efficient cars that can compete in the SoCal market, Reuss and company say it’s time to focus on the retail experience. The GM North American boss tells the LA Times

We are really going to have a go at California. This is not some half-baked plan. We will be putting a serious amount of money into this.

Serious money is good… but money alone won’t change the culture of a car dealer that’s always played second fiddle to import brands. So, how will GM tackle cultural shortcomings at its SoCal dealerships? Let’s just say that, for all the apparent seriousness with which this issue is being tackled, GM has come up with a Mickey Mouse plan… literally.

The LAT reports

Chevrolet dealers and their sales staffs are headed for classes at the Anaheim theme park and elsewhere designed to turn fast-talking car salesmen into personable Prince Charmings.

They will learn such rules as a prince or princess never smokes in public. That takes the magic out of the Magic Kingdom. They will also learn that sometimes it’s better to be a little bit like Dopey. The silent dwarf doesn’t have to say anything to make people feel good. When it comes to purchasing cars, customers remember less about what the sales staff said than they do about the experience they had at the dealership.

“Disney has created a culture where they talk about how they are always on stage with their customer. Sometimes we take the customer for granted,” said Alan Batey, Chevrolet’s vice president of sales and service.

The Disney training will teach dealership employees how to interact with customers and to do dozens of small things that Batey hopes will create repeat business.

Niceties such as washing a car when it comes in for routine service and placing a bottle of cold water in the cup holder when the owner takes back the vehicle can help change consumers’ perceptions of the car business, Batey said.

Don’t smoke in front of customers and give out bottled water? Let’s hope the Disney training isn’t taking up much of the $500,000-$1.5m that GM is giving 100-odd Californian Chevy stores. Especially when much of the consumer bias against American-brand cars has to do with a lingering reputation for poor quality rather than poor dealership experience. And although GM clearly wants to kick-start the Chevrolet brand that now represents the core of its global business, overcoming decades worth of poor reputation doesn’t get solved with advice from fairy godmothers or from hiding cigarette-smoking dealer staff. Rebuilding Chevrolet brand allegiance in the fickle, fashion-forward Southern Californian market is going to be a generational challenge.

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Nissan Leaf Owners Take The Lead In Improving Efficiency Sat, 15 Oct 2011 19:10:18 +0000

One of most common complaints that traditional “car guys” have about the modern auto industry is that cars have become so complex and computerized that repairs and modifications have become too complex for their mechanical skillset. But, on the other end of the car guy spectrum, EV enthusiasts are taking over the mantle of the homebrew automotive modifications. The New York Times reports that Nissan Leaf owners are taking the lead to fix issues with the first mass-market electric car, creating more reliable state-of-charge indicators and rapid-chargers, tipping the balance of power from the manufacturer back to the savvy, hands-on consumer.  And as EV enthusiasts build communities, share their experiments and improve vehicles like the Leaf, automakers like Nissan are listening.

Despite the antipathy between old-school auto enthusiasts and their new-wave EV counterparts, these two groups have more in common than you might realize… which can only be good news for the larger automotive culture.

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Rent Out Your Car Via Onstar Wed, 05 Oct 2011 23:21:10 +0000

Onstar may have been pressured by privacy activists into dropping changes to its terms of service, but the telematics service is still betting that people want to be more connected than ever. So much so that it’s going offer a service allowing you to rent your car out to strangers.

A GM press release explains

RelayRides allows vehicle owners to choose to rent out their idle vehicles, with the owner controlling the rates and availability of the car. RelayRides provides an online marketplace and a $1 million insurance policy to make the transaction safe and convenient.

Through innovative technology integration, RelayRides will leverage OnStar to allow RelayRides borrowers to unlock GM cars with their mobile phones. For vehicles that are not OnStar enabled, RelayRides must install a small device in the car to provide convenient access to borrowers. The integration makes all eligible OnStar vehicles immediately “RelayRides ready” without having to install additional hardware…

RelayRides will leverage OnStar technology through a mobile application to allow customers to check for available vehicles, make a online reservation online as well as check future reservations, locate their reserved vehicle via GPS and lock and unlock the vehicle, all through their smart phone.

And GM isn’t just mating its Onstar technology to the “peer-to-peer” car sharing program (which is still only available in San Francisco and Boston), its VC arm GM Ventures “is in advanced discussions with RelayRides about an investment in the company as part of GM’s overall commitment to addressing urban mobility issues.” Car sharing programs have become a big trend in the automotive industry, with Daimler, BMW, Toyota and others jumping on the bandwagon in some form or other. But as might be expected from the company that brought us the Volt, rather than surf the trend, GM is going one step further by leading the industry into the peer-to-peer rental space. And as with all of these investments, it’s tough to see how this makes sense in the long term. In the short term though, at least this might “get butts into seats,” something GM execs say is the key to overcoming what they call “outdated perceptions” of GM products.

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Hammer Time: Abandoned Hope Wed, 05 Oct 2011 17:49:21 +0000

It was Tamara’s first new car. A 2003 Saturn VUE AWD with a 4-cylinder and all the options. Out the door at $25,000.  Overjoyed to have finally afforded her very own new car, Tamara splurged and spoiled it. Saturn seat covers soon adorned the interior and a chrome grille guard was added to give her cute zonker yellow ride a bit more gravitas. The Vue would be her absolute pride and joy for the next seven years.

Until it died. Seven years, two transmissions and only 69k miles, Tamara got fed up with being one of many victims of an under-engineered CVT. Besides she couldn’t afford the $5000+ bill.

Yet she wasnt alone. Far from it. Tamara is just one of thousands of folks who have been given the stiff arm by a manufacturer. All the major manufacturers do this to a degree and no, it’s not because they are evil and uncaring. You have to draw a line somewhere.

GM offered purchasers of their new VUE’s with the defective CVT’s a $5000 rebate towards a new vehicle… or 50% of the cost of a new tranny. It was good for 5 years or 75,000 miles, and there were many occasions where GM would go beyond that warranty.

Was that enough? Most owners would say no. Even in the dog days of the 1970’s a vehicle was expected to last longer than that. GM’s profit margins on these vehicles would likely tell a different story. On a purely personal note, it seems ridiculous that any well kept transmission shouldn’t last at least 10 years and 150k miles these days.

But there are a lot of exceptions to this rule.

Honda extended their CVT warranty to 8 years and 80,000 miles on the 1st generation Honda Civic hybrid which weighs about 2700 pounds. However the 1st generation Insight (2000 – 2004 models) with the exact same C VTtransmission and 900 fewer pounds gets a 10 year / 157,000 mile warranty.

Guess which one has the stronger enthusiast community?

Nissan extended their CVT warranty to 10 years and 120,000 miles on seven different models built between 2003 and 2010. Yet Chrysler who uses the same sourced transmission has not offered any warranty extension.

Volvo provided a 10 year / 200,000 mile warranty on thousands of defective Electronic Throttle Modules that were built between1999 through 2002. However Volvo also saw fit to not offer an extended warranty on their Aisin-Warner and GM 5-speed automatic transmissions that had high failure rates on their Volvo V70’sXC70’s, and XC90’s. Those only get 5 years and 60,000 miles.

Toyota experienced engine sludge issues on ten models built between 1997 and 2002. After a long legal fight they settled on offering full compensation for new owners who had the issues occur within years and unlimited miles.

Ford developed a V platform for their Ford Windstar, Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey that used a highly unreliable 4F50N transmission. No warranty extension on them from the 3 year / 36,000 mile warranty. But Ford has recalled the Windstar for safety related rust issues as has Toyota.

In short every manufacturer has issues and deals with them in ways that reflect their core beliefs. When it comes to safety nearly everyone covers the well-being of the customer. Powertrain and electronics issues? It depends.

Whenever I see someone shift from reverse to drive on an automatic without breaking, I wince. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. As a dealer few things tick me off more than experiencing some loudmouth schmuck who ragged out a creme puff and then demands money for their abuse and neglect.

There are a lot more folks out there who fit that description than today’s media will ever admit to.

In the coming years you’re going to see an amazing array of new electronics systems and advanced powertrains. Cars should be more reliable than ever… but they also will likely become more  expensive to repair as well.  The line of expectations between what ‘should’ last and what ‘does’ last will continue to blur for customers and manufacturers.

So who should hold the mantle of responsibility? Is it sane for a manufacturer to offer only 36,000 miles of warranty coverage in an industry where cars are routinely expected to last 5 to 7 times longer? Should the free market rule? Or should the government intercede in cases when defect levels go beyond the pale?

It’s very hard to draw that line. Just ask Tamara.

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Tesla Model S Customer Blog: Beta Under The Bright Lights Tue, 04 Oct 2011 15:17:48 +0000

[Editor's note: videos are from Youtube, and were not taken by the author]

“THE BETAS ARE COMING!” The mid-August e-mail from Tesla Motors breathlessly touted “the most exciting automotive event of the year:” an exclusive owners-only unveiling of the Model S. All 6,000 of us who’d put down $5K deposits on the electric sedan would be invited out to Tesla’s sprawling new plant in Fremont, Calif. to see, touch, and ride in the Beta version of the car, described as “over 90 percent production intent.”

A few weeks later came the e-mail invitation itself. I RSVPed the same day. Tesla had expected attendance in the hundreds, and had made initial plans for 1,000 just to be safe. But when 300 RSVPs came back in the first 23 minutes, they realized they had a tsunami of customer enthusiasm on their hands. In the end, about 2,000 owners showed up, including one guy from Kazakhstan.

Driving my rented Prius up I-880 toward Fremont on the big day, I passed a factory with huge letters on the side: SOLYNDRA. Not a good omen. The start-up Silicon Valley manufacturer of high-tech cutting-edge solar panels, the recipient of half a billion dollars in government loans, had lost hundreds of millions of dollars and just gone bankrupt amid cries of political favoritism and financial fraud.

A mile or so up the road, another sprawling factory festooned with giant letters: TESLA. A start-up Silicon Valley manufacturer of high-tech cutting edge automobiles, recipient of half a billion dollars in government loans, currently reporting annual losses of hundreds of millions of dollars….oh, never mind.

Dozens of BMWs in the parking lot, a Panamera here, a tricked-out Lotus there. Up by the door, a half-dozen Roadsters tethered to their charging stations. I join the stream of owners, chattering excitedly, as we walked up a literal red carpet to the factory entrance. The first thing we see inside: a Tesla boutique selling logoed shirts, jackets, and accessories. Business is brisk

Then down a long hallway formed by temporary white walls that mask the stunning vastness of the plant, the former NUMMI factory owned by Toyota and GM. Then, bang, we’re in the middle of it, shiny white floors that stretch out almost to the limits of vision, with bright red robotic machinery scattered about, and several Model S prototypes staged in various points of assembly. Over to the right a dark corner of the plant, maybe half a football field in size, has been set up like a night club–leather couches and tables, potted plants, open bars, hors d’oeuvres at every turn, dim blue and red lighting, pulsating club music.

Wine in hand, and resisting the entreaties of a black-clad waiter offering bacon-wrapped scallops, I chat with another owner, lamenting the fact that the earliest slot I could get for a ride was 10:30 p.m., five hours from now. He’s scheduled for a ride in a few minutes, and offers to let me stand in for his no-show guest.

Waiting in the ride line, we watch the three ride cars–one black, one white, one red–come and go with their cargoes of four riders. Each arrival looks like a NASCAR pit stop: the car screeches up, two Tesla employees attack the car with polishing rags while three others open the doors and shoo out the grinning passengers. Four new riders, carefully prepositioned for quick entry, are then ushered in, and the car tears off once more. Elapsed time, maybe 30 seconds.

At last, my turn. I get shotgun, and at 6 feet 2 I find the front seat a bit cramped because it’s pulled forward for more legroom in back. I’m barely buckled in and have just glanced at the huge center video screen before we race off into the empty back parking lot. First up is a short slalom course, to demonstrate the flat cornering, the result of the heavy, low-mounted battery. “Lowest c.g. in the business,” the driver intones. Then a couple of quick turns, and we line up for a quarter-mile straightaway.

We accelerate briskly to about 65 mph in almost total silence. I ask the driver to back off the accelerator abruptly at high speed, so I can get a feel for the regenerative braking. (In a brief test drive of the Roadster a couple of years back, I found its abruptly powerful trailing-throttle regen to be way too much for everyday driving. Hopefully the S would feel more like a normal car.) He obliges, and I’m relieved that, from the passenger’s point of view at least, it seems pretty normal. No lurch against the shoulder harness.

One more quick 180, another brief spurt, and we’re back at the start. The doors fly open, and the next four riders surge forward. Total elapsed time: 90 seconds.

I refill my wine glass, load up on Thai noodles, and start looking for Tesla engineers. There are dozens of them scattered around, each clad in a grey polo shirt, each eager to talk. By luck, one of the first I introduce myself to is Drew Baglino, who happens to be directly involved in setting up the Model S regen braking system.

He has some surprises for me. First, he tells that the regen profile of the Model S is precisely the same as the Roadster. So why did it feel different to me? For one thing, I tested the Roadster in New York City, and never exceeded 50 mph. On both cars, the regen is set to be stronger at low speeds, so I was comparing 40-mph regen on the Roadster to 65-mph regen on the Model S. Moreover, the extra 500 lbs of passengers in the S would have reduced the S’s deceleration.

He also countered my impression that the Model S’s braking system–in which the brake pedal actuates only the standard friction brakes–is less efficient than the blended system of the Toyota Prius, in which the brake pedal initially activates the regen system, resorting to the friction brakes only when additional brake force is needed in abrupt stops.

“Tesla’s brake system is just as efficient as Toyota’s, and we’ve done the dyno testing to prove it,” says Baglino. What’s not widely known, he says, is that the Toyota system does indeed apply the friction brakes slightly whenever the brake pedal is used. This smooths the transition to full friction braking when necessary.

When I pleaded for driver-adjustable regen on the Model S, he said this was under consideration. (Two days after the event, while writing up this report, on a whim I e-mailed Tesla boss Elon Musk and repeated my plea for driver-adjustable regen. Three hours later, I got this reply: “I totally agree that regen should be driver-adjustable and it will be on Model S.” The message was Cced to JB Straubel, Tesla CTO.)

Over by the info/nav/audio system display, a battery engineer tells me that the 300-mile version of the S will have a battery capacity of 85 kWh. But he won’t reveal the capacities of the shorter-range versions. But some simple math suggests that the 240-mile version will have 68 kWh and the 160-mile version about 45 kWh. Even the latter is nearly double the capacity of the Nissan Leaf.

There will be about a 220-pound weight penalty for each step up in battery capacity, I’m told. The higher-capacity batteries will have some combination of more cells and improved cell chemistry. Final specs have not yet been determined.

Over by the dessert bar (I can’t resist those mini-eclaires) a charging system engineer shows off the Model S charging plug, which will plug into either 120v or 240v outlets. At 240 volts, the car will charge at a rate of 9.6 kW, enough to completely charge the 300-mile battery in about nine hours. On the average, he tells me, I’ll add 30 miles of range for each hour of charging. An optional second built-in charger will double those charging rates.

As much fun as it is talking to the engineers, at around 8 o’clock, all conversations stop and everyone moves toward an elevated stage at the rear of the main factory bay.

Elon is coming!

Atop the platform, a Tesla marketing exec plays Ed McMahon to Musk’s Johnny Carson, whipping the crowd into a frenzy of anticipation. (Although he didn’t quite shout “Heeeeere’s Elon!) Musk makes his entrance at the wheel of the red Model S, as the crowd cheers and camera strobes flash. Four Tesla employees ride in the passenger seats. Wearing a tuxedo jacket over a checked sportshirt, Musk then walks around to the back of the car and opens the hatch to reveal his 7-year-old twin sons sitting in the rear-facing child seats.

As the seven bask in the cheers of the crowd, another guy climbs out from under the hood. Okay, we get the point: the Model S is pretty roomy.

It’s the first time I’ve seen Musk in person, and I’m surprised that he seems like a pretty normal guy, maybe even a little geeky, a bit hesitant and awkward amid all the fuss. His rock-star reception, it seems, is inspired not by personal charisma, but by the crowd’s understanding of his vision and accomplishments. Musk gives a short, stumbling speech, briefly demonstrates the entertainment system features–like the ability to surf the Internet, which will probably alone double the car’s accident rate–and walks off to thunderous applause.

Immediately, the crowd storms the stage to inspect the car up close. A squad of nervous-looking Tesla guys gently shepherd us off the platform. With the stage finally clear, Ed McMahon drags Musk back on stage. It seems that Elon forgot to make the most important announcement of the evening: that there will be a high-performance version of the Model S that will do zero-to-sixty in under five seconds. More wild applause.

It’s pushing 9 p.m., but there’s still time for a factory tour. Instead of the 15-minute rush job I expected, we get an hour-long dog-and-robot show of virtually the entire production process. (The one exception is the paint shop, which we’re told is a 40-minute walk away. The factory is that big.) What stands out for me are the robots: ranging in size from ostrich to giraffe, bobbing and weaving, clutching, punching, drilling, welding. “These are my toys,” one robotics engineer tells me proudly. “This one here does a fantastic job of welding aluminum, which is a lot harder than welding steel. It’s far better than anyone could do by hand. Every weld is perfect.”

While the production line is by no means complete, and the robotic gyrations we see this night are choreographed primarily to impress the rabble, to the layman’s eye it looks like they could start building cars next month. In my mind, there is little doubt that Tesla will make its production target of mid-2012.

Every Tesla employee I talk to seems to love the place. One production engineer had worked at the plant when it was run by the Toyota/GM patnership. “This was a dirty, nasty place under Toyota,” he tells me. “The floor was black with stuff. Tesla cleaned everything up. Look at the floor now. This place is more like an Intel chip plant than a car factory.”

He also raves about the Tesla operating style. “When I first got here, I was overwhelmed by the opportunities to innovate. It’s such a team-oriented place. Everybody is always bouncing ideas off each other.” Another engineer, the guy in charge of headlights, stells me, “Elon drops by my office to chat every few weeks. He likes to know what’s going on.”

Now it’s nearing 10:30, the time for my official ride. This time I sit in back, the right window seat. This driver seems more enthusiastic than the first one; he slams through the slalom course, chuckling “This should help you folks in back get to know each other better.” The acceleration run seems more aggressive, too, and we hit almost 80 mph as the floodlit cones approach in the windshield. A couple of the passengers actually scream in delight, as if riding a roller coaster.

Is it all too good to be true? Have I been hoodwinked by the shiny prototypes and the mini-eclaires and the rock-star CEO? Maybe. But I’ll be very surprised if Tesla meets the same fate as Solyndra just down the road. Despite the doubts of my wife and a few friends, I’m confident that my $5,000 deposit is in good hands. And I really, really want that car.

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IBM Studies Navigation That Takes You Where The Advertisers Want You Fri, 30 Sep 2011 20:08:59 +0000

Quick, what’s the point of having a navigation system in your car? To get where you want to be going, right? Well, IBM has another idea: maybe instead of taking you where you want to go, navigation systems should be offering to take you where a paying advertiser wants you to go. Say, right past their shop, for example. Popular Science quotes from one of IBM’s patent applications

Conventional route planning systems determine optimal routes based on different preferred conditions, including minimizing travel time or minimizing the distance traveled. By focusing on optimal route determination, the known route planning systems fail to consider non-optimal routes whose presentation to travelers may have value to other parties.

So, it’s not quite to the point of your nav system saying “I can’t let you not pass a Starbucks, Dave,” but in the future your navigation could strongly suggest that, rather than going to the farmer’s market, you stop by the supermarket that happens to pay IBM the most.

PopSci explains

The system would work by collecting fees from retailers, which would then be used to assign a preferential weight for certain way points along a given route. IBM software would figure out a new route that incorporates that way point, and present it to the driver as the “recommended route.” This sub-optimal route couldn’t be too inconvenient — the patent application discusses limiting how far out of the way a recommended route could go — but it might not be the most direct route, nor the fastest. If the driver does actually take the fee-inspired route, then IBM could levy an additional fee for this successful misdirection.

Because sometimes it’s not best to focus on solely serving the end-user. Especially when “third party” firms will pay big money to redirect the hapless end-user to their products. It’s almost as if IBM has learned a thing or two from Automobile magazine

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Quote Of The Day: Car Dealer Cliche Edition Wed, 28 Sep 2011 20:30:58 +0000

Nobody in the auto retail business can possibly be unaware of the horrible reputation that car dealers have earned over decades of shady dealing. Heck, the internet has even created a pseudo-meme for the entire business, in the form of the passed-around image you see at the top of this post. But one industry’s horrendous reputation can be another another industry’s opportunity, and Kevin Hurst thought he had come up with a goldmine. By creating software that guides dealers through compliance with a number of federal regulations, he figured he could leverage the stereotype of the sleazy car dealer to get potential clients interested in demonstrating their commitment to walking the straight and narrow path. It’s a brilliant idea, and the kind of move that would show that market self-regulation and government regulation can work together to serve consumers. Unfortunately, Hurst made a fatal error of calculation: he assumed car dealers care about fixing their reputation and living up to national standards.

As Hurst tells WardsAuto, the auto retail industry has no such interest:

“Dealers are interested in selling cars and making money. Put simply, they don’t want to be bothered with government regulations or anything else that interferes with that selling activity.”

Many dealers choose not to comply with all those regulations “or are ignoring them altogether,” Hurst says. That puts them out of the market for Infinity’s software that systematically goes down the regulation checklist.

“We spent $1 million on codes and thought everything was in place,” he says. “We figured we had a slam-dunk product, because law requires compliance. But we didn’t anticipate the lack of interest at the level we’re seeing.”

Big dealerships, especially publicly owned chains, usually obey all the rules, he says. Some franchised dealers think they are doing that, but unwittingly aren’t. Still other dealers, particularly independent used-car lot owners, don’t even try.

“One guy told me the federal government doesn’t have the resources to catch a mouse running across his desk,” Hurst says. “Some are thumbing their noses at the laws.”

Hurst says the risks of non-compliance with federal regulations are just too low to get dealers to care. He compares it to people cheating on taxes in the hopes of getting lost in the shuffle, but notes that the risks of being busted for failure to follow federal rules on credit, money laundering, identity theft and more are even smaller. And until dealers begin to actually care about their reputations, or suffer the consequences of non-compliance at the hands of the government or the market, there’s no reason to expect them to clean up their acts. And though non-compliance with things like identity theft prevention laws may not seem like a huge deal, flouting even one law creates an atmosphere of impunity, which almost always translates into a poor customer experience.

And you’d think the car dealer community would know by now that, when it comes to reputation, they’re already fighting an uphill battle.

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GM Drops Proposed OnStar Policy Changes Tue, 27 Sep 2011 17:15:36 +0000

Under attack from privacy advocates and US Senators, Onstar will be dropping plans to automatically track vehicles that are not subscribed to its service, and will make post-cancellation tracking an opt-in option, rather than opt-out. A GM statement reads:

DETROIT – OnStar announced today it is reversing its proposed Terms and Conditions policy changes and will not keep a data connection to customers’ vehicles after the OnStar service is canceled.

OnStar recently sent e-mails to customers telling them that effective Dec. 1, their service would change so that data from a customer vehicle would continue to be transmitted to OnStar after service was canceled – unless the customer asked for it to be shut off.

“We realize that our proposed amendments did not satisfy our subscribers,” OnStar President Linda Marshall said. “This is why we are leaving the decision in our customers’ hands. We listened, we responded and we hope to maintain the trust of our more than 6 million customers.”

If OnStar ever offers the option of a data connection after cancellation, it would only be when a customer opted-in, Marshall said. And then OnStar would honor customers’ preferences about how data from that connection is treated.

Maintaining the data connection would have allowed OnStar to provide former customers with urgent information about natural disasters and recalls affecting their vehicles even after canceling their service. It also would have helped in planning future services, Marshall said.

“We regret any confusion or concern we may have caused,” Marshall said.

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Senators Franken And Coons Question OnStar Over New Policies Sun, 25 Sep 2011 18:54:29 +0000

Editor’s note: When I wrote about OnStar’s latest round of privacy concerns, I didn’t realize that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law had voiced his own concerns in a letter published just the day before. Here is the letter, as published at Senator Franken’s website. OnStar has already said it will respond to specifically to the concerns of Senators Franken and Coons.

Ms. Linda Marshall, President
OnStar Corporation
400 Renaissance Center
Detroit, MI 48265

Dear Ms. Marshall:

We are writing to express our serious concern with OnStar’s announcement earlier this week that it would continue to track the GPS locations of its customers’ vehicles even if those customers have affirmatively ended their contractual plans with OnStar.  In this email announcement, OnStar informs its current and former subscribers that it reserves the right to track their locations “for any purpose, at any time.”  It appears that the only way to stop this tracking is to actually call OnStar and request that the data connection between OnStar and the vehicle be terminated; this service is not available online.  OnStar further reserves the right to share or sell location data with “credit card processors,” “data management companies,” OnStar’s “affiliates,” or “any third party” provided that OnStar is satisfied that the data cannot be traced back to individual customers.  See OnStar, Privacy Statement: Effective as of December 2011.  In a nutshell, OnStar is telling its current and former customers that it can track their location anywhere, anytime—even if they cancel their subscriptions—and then give or sell that information to anyone as long as OnStar deems it safe to do so.

OnStar’s actions appear to violate basic principles of privacy and fairness for OnStar’s approximately six million customers—especially for those customers who have already ended their relationships with your company.  OnStar’s assurances that it will protect its customers by “anonymizing” precise GPS records of their location are undermined by a broad body of research showing that it is extraordinarily difficult to successfully anonymize highly personal data like location.  See generally Paul Ohm, Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization, 5 UCLA Law Review 1701 (2010) and Marco Gruteser and Baik Hoh, On the Anonymity of Periodic Location Samples, in Second International Conference on Security in Pervasive Computing, Boppard, Germany (2005) at 179-192.  If a data set shows the exact location where a car starts every morning, the roads that car travels on its morning commute, the office where it is parked during business hours, and the schools where it stops on its way home, it is unnecessary for that data set to include a name or license plate for it to be connected to an individual and his or her family.

We urge you to reconsider these decisions.  We also urge you to better inform your customers of their ramifications.  To that end, we request that you provide answers to the following questions:

1.      Does OnStar believe that its actions comply with federal law?
2.      Will OnStar allow its customers to deactivate their data connections online?
3.      If a customer deactivates their data connection, will OnStar delete the existing location information they have gathered for that customer?  Or does OnStar reserve the right to store and sell that information regardless of deactivation?
4.      Has OnStar ever suffered a breach of its customers’ location data?
5.      Has OnStar ever suffered a breach of any of its customers’ private information?
6.      How will OnStar protect non-anonymized data on its servers in light of recent breaches at major institutions like Citibank, Sony and the International Monetary Fund?
7.      How exactly will OnStar anonymize its location data?
8.      Will OnStar seek its customers’ consent before sharing or selling their location data to third parties?  Does OnStar believe it is legally required to do so?
9.      Will OnStar inform its customers of the entities to whom it sells location data?
10.  Has OnStar already disclosed or sold any of its customers’ location data with third parties?  Which third parties?
11.  Will OnStar agree to stop the tracking, sharing, and sale of location data for customers that have ended their subscriptions to OnStar services?

We believe that OnStar’s actions underscore the urgent need for prompt congressional action to enact privacy laws that protect private, sensitive information like location.  In the meantime, we believe that it is the responsibility of corporate citizens like OnStar to take every step possible to safeguard the privacy of their customers.

We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.


Al Franken                                                                                          Christopher A. Coons
Chairman, Subcommittee on                                                               United States Senator
Privacy, Technology and the Law

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Onstar Responds To Privacy Concerns. Again. Still. Sat, 24 Sep 2011 16:46:41 +0000

Concerns over privacy have haunted GM’s OnStar business for as long as it’s been around, and responses like this video have become something of an annual routine for OnStar’s executives. The latest round of furor involves changes to OnStar’s policies, which the New York Times describes thusly

The first regards what happens when a customer cancels the service. Until now, when OnStar service stopped, so did the vehicle’s two-way communications system. As of Dec. 1, however, that will not necessarily be the case. Vehicles of owners who no longer subscribe could still be monitored via the system’s still-active two-way cellular link.

The second policy change concerns the potential use of the data collected by OnStar, which includes information like the vehicle’s speed and location, current odometer reading, driver seat-belt use and air-bag deployment. Under the new terms, OnStar reserves the right to share that information with other companies and organizations, even data culled from motorists who no longer subscribe to the service but who have left the two-way communications connection open.

Of course, OnStar says GM customers can opt out of the service, but it’s making the case that by only sharing anonymous data, it can limit meaningful privacy concerns. But OnStar doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and as it continues to sell Americans on the notion that security is worth sacrificing some sense of privacy for, it will find itself increasingly pulled into a national debate.

OnStar’s execs are clearly walking a line here, as there’s no doubt OnStar-provided data is used in a number of ways that they argue is intended to benefit the customer. Monitoring usage patterns in the Chevy Volt is one example. Allowing vehicle owners to spy on their kids and spouses is another. But by pushing these services, OnStar finds itself at the cutting edge of a profound national debate on the balance between privacy and security that has been simmering just below the national consciousness in the decade since 9/11.

OnStar is clearly aligning itself with the side of security, not only offering nanny services to its users, but now giving them nanny powers over people who use their cars as well. In the short term, this has been a strong play: history shows that OnStar has picked the winning side in the debate, as most security/privacy tradefoffs since 9/11 have been decided in favor of security. But as measures like pay-per-mile vehicle tracking gain political momentum (the talk in DC is that government tracking of every vehicle is “unavoidable” in the middle-to-long-term), a backlash may well be brewing.

The problem with picking any one side of a fundamental political tradeoff is that eventually your side overreaches, sparking a backlash. When pay-per-mile taxation becomes a serious policy proposal, a political near-inevitability in the next ten years, all of the slippery concessions to security-over-privacy that led up to government tracking of every vehicle in America will be seen in a very different light. OnStar (and its analogues, which are spreading throughout the industry) will clearly be identified as a poster boy for the tradeoff between privacy and security, and faced with mandatory government tracking, it’s hard to see Americans remaining in love with the idea of voluntary tracking. Already the backlash is brewing, and public responses to privacy concerns will be a fact of life for firms like OnStar. But then, that’s just a part of the cost of doing business when you’re selling services that prey on paranoia, and asks customers to trust your benevolent gaze more than the often-terrifying randomness of the universe.

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When Will We Get A Decent iPod Interface? Thu, 15 Sep 2011 17:49:44 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

[Ed: The above video is not intended as a specific example of the problems we faced, but a general illustration of the wider issue]

While on a junket for the Hyundai Veloster I was treated to yet another instance of The Most Infuriating Thing About New Cars – the lack of any decent way to connect your iPod to the in-car entertainment system.

As TTAC Editor-In-Chief Ed Niedermeyer and I toured Oregon’s various scenic byways in the newest Hyundai, our musical selections were repeatedly interrupted due various errors, whereby Ed’s iPhone was unable to sync, refused to completely sync, or randomly re-synced. Our attempts at listening to the new Bon Iver album, or Burn After Rolling (the listenable mixtape made by limp-dick rapper Wiz Khalifa) were interrupted by a blast from XM’s pop station, as the iPod integration took a giant shit on us. Nothing spoils the conversation like having your ambient rock or gangsta rap interrupted by Katy Perry or Lady Gaga.

In the pre-USB port days, there were two options – you could use an “iTrip”, a crude device that plugged into a cigarette lighter and used a small radio transmitter to broadcast your music over a dormant frequency. Tuning your radio to said frequency allowed you to have your own private radio station, although it was frequently interrupted by transmissions from competing commercial stations, especially on road trips where frequencies changed every so often.

The other option was the auxiliary port – a 3.5 mm audio jack that plugged into the car stereo and allowed you to control your iPod without any aural interruptions like an iTrip. The only problem is that these were extremely rare in the pre-USB era, and have failed to become ubiquitous.

My guess is that the USB/touch-screen integration is a response to fears of possible litigation via crashes caused by distracted drivers, who could ostensibly fiddle with their iPods while it’s plugged in to the auxiliary port. BMW once offered an iPod integration system that forced you to create pre-made playlists and didn’t allow for any browsing of the music library, which I suspect was done for this reason.

The big problem is that most iPod integration systems are varying degrees of garbage. Currently, Ford’s SYNC system is the worst, despite its ubiquity, and every Ford product I review, I try and bash it. I would stop, but I’ve yet to have a SYNC system that works properly, without being a massive distraction and malfunctioning on multiple occasions. None of my passengers, from my technologically savvy 18-year-old brother, to my own friends (who are supposed to be “connected”, “plugged-in” Gen-Y types) can figure it out, and if they do, they inevitably get frustrated with the confusing menus, lack of a “back” button (a crucial feature when your iPod has 10,000 songs and you don’t want to scroll through endless menus to find one damn song) and the occasional disconnection because “SYNC failed to connect to your portable audio device”.

For all the marketing pap about reaching out to a generation of buyers who care less and less about cars, the one thing the OEMs need to do is the one thing they are constantly fucking up. For Gen-Y, the most important part of the driving experience has nothing to do with dynamic. They just want to listen to music painlessly. And not get violated at the gas pump . Being able to drive something with a bit of panache isn’t a bad thing either.

Hyundai managed a gentleman’s C on those criteria. Let’s see who gets an A+.

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Ask The Best And Brightest: Covering Your Rear (Engine Sportscar) With An Extended Warranty? Tue, 23 Aug 2011 17:01:47 +0000

TTAC commentator stephada writes:

Hello I drive a 2010 C4S, bought new, now with 42k miles and I am considering an Extended Warranty through a company called Protected Life, sold through the Porsche dealership. My service manager said they used to not offer this because they had trouble finding one that could cover things well enough, until they found Protected.

I’d like the Best and Brightest to weigh in on the specific example I’m facing. I’ve read the original B&B thread but it dealt with the issue philosophically and generally. I trust the B&B can help out again in my choices, as they did on the question of ”S or 4S?” [Ed: follow-up here].

The details in the agreement are numerous, but the highlights are, that in addition to (of course) not covering wear and tear like brakes, anything without a functional need is not covered, such as: upholstery, trim, paint, glass, belt, air bags, and exhaust emissions. Anything to do with a manual clutch is also not covered (but the PDK in my car would be covered).

They pay full rate for the high-dollar Porsche parts and labor. I would bring in the car and the experience would be the same as I now have under factory warranty, except with a $200 deductible.

The costs are +3 years/100k miles total for $5100, +4 years/100k miles for $6700, +5 years/100k miles for $7600.

This would include a tow service up to 25 miles (then mileage), tire repair, $75/day trip interruption expenses, and $50/day rental car.

What do you think? These aren’t cheap but neither is a new engine. If you just sneeze in the dealership service department, it’s a thousand bucks.

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Chevy Volt: Ask the Men and Women Who Own Them Fri, 19 Aug 2011 18:06:15 +0000

Volt owners gather before their parade down Woodward

Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth

As part of the festivities surrounding the Woodward Dream Cruise, GM organized a parade down Woodward and back up again made up of 50 Chevy Volts driven to the event by their owners, at their own expense, from around the country. As far as car company promotional events go it was fairly low key (I was asked not to publicize the pre-parade reception for the owners) but it was clearly a high priority item for GM. The Volt marketing team was out in force and they brought in NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who are racing at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, to wave green flags at the start of the Volt parade. Gordon and Johnson both own Chevy dealerships and they both personally own Chevy Volts. They race for Rick Hendricks, who owns quite a few Chevy (and other GM) stores himself. There were news teams from at least two of the Detroit tv stations and a satellite truck that I believe was used for a national network or cable interview of the NASCAR drivers. GM also brought out a number of pace cars from their private stash of Camaros, Corvettes and even one Chevy SSR that paced races at Indianapolis and Daytona. There was also the ZR1 that set a lap record for production cars at the Nurburgring. Marketing being what it is, the parade also included 2 squadrons of Chevy’s most recent new product, the Camaro convertible and the subcompact Sonic. There were 100 cars in total, one for each year in Chevy’s current centennial.

There were t-shirts and baseball caps for the guests, and the Volt owners each got a nice die cast model of their car, but the Volt owners weren’t there for the swag or for autographs, though they eagerly accepted both. The Volt owners were there because they really, really, really like their cars.

Comments like “the best car I’ve ever owned” were not uncommon. Ear to ear grins were everywhere. These folks were bursting with pride. Sometimes people don’t want to talk to reporters and writers. Not in this case. These people were eager to tell all. I watched more than one Volt owner do more than one tv interview.  Understand, these are early adopters, and a number traveled across the country to buy a Volt and then drove the car home hundreds or thousands of miles after taking delivery. Likewise many drove hundreds of miles to come to this event. The chances of any of them driving to Detroit to complain were pretty small.

The sign on the side of that Volt reads "American Made - Solar Powered".

I don’t like to say I told you so, but I predicted that early adopters of the Volt would love it to pieces and want to tell everyone about it. That’s what early adopters do, isn’t it? There were a fair number of Apple enthusiasts in the crowd. iPhones and iPads aplenty. When I gave one owner my business card, which for this event had TTAC on one side and Cars In Depth, the 3D car culture site, on the other, he showed me his 3D HTC phone. If I were to make a snap judgment, the crowd was mostly white, about equally split male and female, well educated, and seemingly upper middle class. For some this was their first “green” car. One lady from Alabama traded in a Saab 9.5. Others were not new to alternative propulsion. One owner traded in a Prius. He said that his overall gas mileage with the Volt was higher than with the Prius and said that the even with the cost of recharging, it was still cheaper to run than his Toyota hybrid. It was not a homogeneous group of drivers in terms of how they were using there cars. Some were hypermilers, but most said they just drove their cars normally. Some had short commutes and could operate on battery power most of the time, others had 70 mile commutes or took their Volts on long trips. My favorite answer was the guy who had a 40 mile commute but couldn’t charge his car at work. Where does he work? The GM Tech Center in Warren. There are charging stations at the Tech Center, but not near his building and the shuttle buses don’t run on afternoon shift when he works.

With at least 50 Volts in attendance, this may be the largest gathering of privately owned Volts yet.

I asked each of the Volt owners that I spoke to the same questions: Do they hypermile or do they drive normally? How many gallons of gas have they used? What’s their overall gas mileage? What’s their gas mileage when on the range extender?

The satellite truck was for uplinking a network interview with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson

Most drove normally, but some had short commutes. The champion gas miser had used a total of 2 gallons of liquid fuel since March, but he’s self employed and works at home. Others reported using as little as 8, 22 and 25 gallons of gasoline over months of service. One person said that charging their Volt was costing them about $1 per full charge. I think that most drivers wouldn’t mind paying only $1 to drive 40 miles. At the price of gasoline today, $3.65/gallon, you would have to get something in the neighborhood of 150mpg to get the same fuel cost. It takes about 12Kw-Hrs to completely recharge a Volt to get an idea of the cost based on your local electricity rates.

A Volt owner admires a '63 split-window Corvette

All of the Volt owners reported getting at least 40 miles per charge. One guy said he can sometimes get 50. The Volt owners that used the range extender regularly reported overall gasoline mileage of at least 65 miles per gallon, but many reported much higher numbers, double and quadruple that 65mpg. The reports on gas mileage while on the range extender were impressively uniform. All but one said “42 miles to the gallon”, and the one outlier said “42 to 45 miles per gallon”. One said that it was “consistently 42. 42 miles of range on the battery and 42 mpg on the range extender”. All were pleased with the level of fuel economy when the ICE was running. I asked if there was anything that displeased them, and one owner reported being less than thrilled with the navigation system. That was about the only complaint.

Gordon and Johnson schmooze while waiting for their satellite interview. For all the talk of any feud, the men are in business together. Gordon is a part-owner of Johnson's #48 team. Other than personally winning the championship they share interests.

I did bring up the question of hybrids and EVs being a false economy. One of them, a businessman from Ann Arbor, said that a $40,000 car is a $40,000 car and you don’t buy a car for that much for the purposes of saving money. He said that when his friends raise the issue of the Volt’s (or any hybrid’s, for the matter) false economy, he points out that their $300 smartphone and $120/month data plan for it is costing, not saving, them money. I didn’t get the impression that any of these people were starry-eyed idealists. They also didn’t seem smug, which is nice.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who are Volt owners themselves (and Chevy dealers too) wave green flags to start the parade of Volts.

Obviously, this is not a crowd that is going to be hypercritical of the Volt. There’s a lot of selection and self-selection going on here, so they’re not going to be average drivers, no matter how average their use of the car may or may not be. A few days ago the notion of GM emulating Apple was bandied about. I’d say that most people outside of GM scoffed at the notion. I’ve been around personal computers since the early Altair and Sol days and I remember something from when Apple was rolling out the original Macintosh after the computer they branded as Lisa was a dud in the market. The Lisa was not a bad computer. A solid advance over the Apple IIe, it had some innovations that later became standard issue on Macs and PCs, but the Lisa didn’t sell. Then there was the Macintosh, which had evangelists, literally. Guy Kawasaki was given the title of Chief Evangelist to go out there and spread the good word about the Mac.

Chevy Volts parading on north Woodward Avenue

I think that GM has indeed taken a page from Apple’s book in terms of how they are cultivating the people who are buying the Volt, using them as evangelists for the brand. I mentioned swag above. When people were gathering around Johnson and Gordon to get the NASCAR stars’ autographs, I noticed that a number of them were having some kind of book signed. I asked one of them about it, and they said it had come as part of a thank you package from GM when they took delivery of the car. Obviously it was a gesture, like Hyundai giving away iPads with the Genesis sedan (and Hyundai discontinuing that practice is a different kind of gesture to consumers), but it appears that the gesture was appreciated with these Volt owners. The success of the Volt is an open question that won’t be answered until the dealer network is fully supplied and we see if those dealers sell enough Volts to match the annual production capacity of 60,000 units. I think in the case of the early Volt buyers, GM can rely on them to spread positive things about the car, to be their brand evangelists.

Like every hotel that GM uses for Volt events, the Kingsley Radisson has charging stations. Those are not manufacturer's plates so most likely, a private owner was topping off before the parade.

The Volt is a special case with special attention, special marketing, and a special group of consumers. It’s a cutting edge, high tech product that appeals to both tech geeks and people concerned about the environment so you’re already, again, doing some selection for people that tend to be good evangelists for the products they buy. I don’t know if this kind of marketing would work with more mass market cars like the Cruze, but it is possible. The name that GM gave the event, Volt Homecoming, evokes memories of the two Saturn Homecomings that GM sponsored in Spring Hill, TN. Before the Saturn brand was dissipated through badge engineering and poor product planning, the 1994 and 1999 Saturn Homecomings drew 30,000 and 44,000 people to Spring Hill, respectively. Now those homecomings may just have been part of ad genius Hal Rainey’s overall touchy feely promotional campaign but they do show that you can generate some brand loyalty to a mass market car with something that looks and feels like a personal touch. Meanwhile, based on the Volt owners who attended this event that I spoke to, they have both responded to that personal touch  and are willing to extend it to others on behalf of a car that clearly has charmed them.

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GM: Impala Suspension Problems Are “Old GM’s” Liability Thu, 18 Aug 2011 18:19:33 +0000
The Detroit News’s David Shepardson reports that GM has requested the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging rear-suspension problems on 2007-8 model-year Impalas, on the grounds that

“New GM did not assume liability for old GM’s design choices, conduct or alleged breaches of liability under the warranty, and its terms expressly preclude money damages,” the response says.

The suit “is trying to saddle new GM with the alleged liability and conduct of old GM.”

The suit alleges that GM issued a service bulletin for police-fleet 2007-8 Impalas, which were eating through rear tires due to faulty spindle rods. In that bulletin, GM instructed its dealers to replace the rods as well as rear tires, where appropriate. But GM argues that police versions are different than civilian models, and has not issued a bulletin for regular-duty Impalas… and now, on top of it all, its arguing that the “new” post-bailout GM “only agreed to warranty obligations of cars assembled before 2009.” As many as 400,000 Impalas could be affected by the spindle rod issue (which GM says is a manufacturing problem, not a design defect), which could cause rear tires to wear out in as few as 6,000 miles. And despite the clear evidence that GM knew about the problem and fixed police-fleet versions, the bailout liability dump defense could just work: at least one lawsuit (regarding OnStar failure) has already been dismissed on the grounds that New GM is not liable for Old GM’s mistakes. The bailout, it seems, is the shafting that just keeps on shafting…

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Survey Says: Chrysler Can’t Get No Consumer Satisfaction Tue, 16 Aug 2011 22:48:15 +0000 I’m sure this headline will get Mopar fans’ backs up, but it’s the cold-hard truth: the American Consumer Satisfaction Index rated the Chrysler brand lowest of all automotive brands, with Jeep and Dodge tied with Mazda for second-to-last place. And though the graph above shows historical scores, the latest rating is based on interviews with US consumers in the second quarter of this year. Hit the jump for a graph of the latest ratings, but first check out those historical scores. I’m not generally a fan of this kind of survey, as exemplified by the infamous JD Power “Initial Quality” survey, but the most dramatic line on this jumbled graph, belonging to Hyundai, matches that brand’s sales progress amazingly closely. That tells me this “satisfaction index” says something about how well each brand serves its intended customer… which, as Hyundai proves, can (but doesn’t always) lead to sales growth. The counter-example: Cadillac has long been a top contender, even when it sold less-than-entirely-competitive products and was losing sales. With that in mind, let’s take a look at this year’s results.

I didn’t mean to lump the “loser” brands off to the left there, but losers they pretty clearly are… at least according to the ACSI’s criteria. Kia is unsurprisingly towards the bottom of this rating, which ACSI admits favors premium vehicles, with Chevrolet next and Hyundai, GMC and BMW (!) tied up in the next tier. The big surprise according to AN [sub]‘s write-up, was Toyota which tied for first with Cadillac and Lexus. The highest-ranked mass-market brand, Toyota seems to have shaken off any effects the unintended acceleration scandal may have had in the minds of consumers. Of course, like fleet sales, incentives, this index is only one small part of what it takes to understand the market… but its results are certainly provocative.



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Consumer Alert: Beware Online Car-Selling Scams Tue, 16 Aug 2011 15:04:10 +0000

The International Crime Complaint Center (IC3) warns that

Online vehicle shoppers are being victimized by fraudulent vehicle sales and false claims of vehicle protection (VPP) programs… Criminals also attempt to make their scams appear valid by misusing the names of reputable companies and programs. These criminals have no association with these companies and their schemes give buyers instructions which fail to adhere to the rules and restrictions of any legitimate program. For example, the eBay Motors Vehicle Protection Plan (VPP) is a reputable protection program whose name is commonly misused by these criminals. However, the VPP is not applicable to transactions that originate outside of eBay Motors, and it prohibits wire transfer payments. Nevertheless, criminals often promise eBay Motors VPP protections for non-eBay Motors purchases, and instruct victims to pay via Western Union or MoneyGram.

No wonder online new car sales have been struggling. Hit the jump for IC3′s list of warning signs.

According to the center’s release, buyers should beware

  • Sellers who want to move the transaction from one platform to another (for example, Craigslist to eBay Motors).
  • Sellers who claim that a buyer protection program offered by a major Internet company covers an auto transaction conducted outside that company’s site.
  • Sellers who push for speedy completion of the transaction and request payments via quick wire transfer payment systems.
  • Sellers who refuse to meet in person, or refuse to allow the buyer to physically inspect the vehicle before the purchase.
  • Transactions where the seller and vehicle are in different locations. Criminals often claim to have been transferred for work reasons, deployed by the military, or moved because of a family circumstance, and could not take the vehicle with them.
  • Vehicles advertised at well below their market value. Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

The LA Times reports that scammers recently used and lookalike page to defraud online car buyers. Keep a watchful eye on all online auto sellers, and be sure to report any attempts of fraud to local law enforcement, the IC3 and, if you want to take justice into your own hands, write up your experience for TTAC. To defeat scammers, we all need to pull together.

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Super Piston Slap: Cause It’s 9-8-7 On A… Thu, 11 Aug 2011 22:20:37 +0000

Jack writes:

I’ve owned my (987) 2006 Porsche Cayman S for 48,000 of its 52,000 miles.  It’s been a completely enjoyable experience … up until five days ago.

I had brought the car out to the track and was turning a few laps at a moderate level of speed.  The car was completely stock other than a cat back exhaust, and I wasn’t running r-compounds as I was aware of the oiling issues that can happen on certain tracks when running r-compound tires.  The wheels are three-piece OZ Superleggeras, custom built to match the offsets, etc. of the 19″ Turbo wheels which are an option on the Cayman S.  I was even taking it a little easy this afternoon as it was an uncomfortably hot Texas day and I also had my nephew in the car.

This is not a high speed track and g-loads tend to be low and short as most corners are slow, off camber, and relatively short.  Everything was running fine.  Then I exited out of a very slow right hand corner onto the side straight and that’s when everything went wrong.  As the motor transitioned through the cam changeover at 3500 rpm, all hell broke loose and the motor suddenly lost power.  When I pulled the car over, tons of white smoke flooded the cabin.  Obviously something was very wrong.

I had the car towed to the local Porsche specialist (and later, the Porsche dealer), where they informed me that the entire right side of the motor was dead and to determine the absolute cause of failure would require removal of the motor and an expensive tear down.  I was counseled against this as going into the motor adds up very quickly and as expensive as Porsche parts are, it is very easy to eat up more money than it costs to just buy a new crate motor.

I nearly fell over when I got the estimate for a new motor.  Complete with install, I’m staring down a $15,900 bill.   This is when I started looking into alternate fixes and that lead me to a thread at the Planet-9 forms.

Apparently, I’m not the only one with premature engine failures.  Right now, there are 18 failures in North America of the 2006 Cayman S posted on that forum. Not one motor made it past 59,000 miles and most didn’t get anywhere close to that.

Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot.  But remember that Porsche is a low volume manufacturer.   I think this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Running the numbers, Porsche sold 7,313 Caymans in North America in 2006.   Porsche does not give us the break down of S models to base models, unfortunately.  Right off the bat, we have a failure rate of 1:406.   Now, assuming that not every Porsche Cayman sold is an S model, and being generous that 66% of all Caymans sold are Cayman S’s, we’re left with a failure rate of 1:268.  If we also assume that only half of owners with a failure post at planet-9 (there are similar threads at rennlist and other Porsche forums), we get down to a failure rate approaching 1:134.

Likely, the numbers are even lower than that – if we assume half of all models are S’s and failures reported 25% of the time, we achieve a failure rate of 1:50.

This is absolutely absurd considering my Cayman S stickered at nearly $80,000 and barely made 50,000 miles before requiring a complete engine replacement.  I’ve had many cars, many of which went well over 100,000 miles with far inferior maintenance and far more abusive treatment without one failure.  The mechanics agree it wasn’t something I did or could have affected – but Porsche won’t cover it.

Sajeev answers:

Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard about these colossal Porsche engine failures.  Hell, it isn’t even the first time we’ve seen it on Piston Slap, and the comments section was loaded with good advice. I like how the B&B gave you several options. And I’d start with Bertel’s advice.

As someone who has worked for Volkswagen for many years and knows how they tick, here my recommendation:

1.) Forget the class action suit. It will just make lawyers rich and you will end up with a coupon for an oil change.

2.) Do you have paperwork, correspondence with dealer and/or Porsche U.S.A.? If not, create it. You can start writing to your dealer referencing the many telephonic conversations blah blah and demand a free engine. Set a deadline. No answer by the deadline, write again. Negative answer: Demand it again to produce more paper. Then send everything to Porsche U.S.A. demand an engine, a loaner car etc. Either get the engine and the loaner or get a negative response.

3.) Then, and only then, write a letter outlining your experience to

Matthias Müller, CEO

Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG

Porscheplatz 1

D-70435 Stuttgart


Enclose all the paperwork. Keep it to the point. Enclose printouts of posts in fora that address the same problem. (That’s enough of a hint for a class action suit.) But don’t post anything yourself, yet. End the letter with the remark “Should the matter not be solved by ….., then I will be forced to seek other avenues, including legal steps.”

Send it FEDEX.

Here is what will happen: Herr Müller will never read it. An assistant will send it down to the Service Dept. They will get angry at the U.S. side and bounce the matter to them. It will come with a note from the office of the CEO. U.S. needs to report back to the German Service Dept, and the German Service Dept will have to report to Müller’s assistant. Detailed statistics are kept about this. Chances are 70:30 that you will receive a phone call and the matter will go away. Not because they suddenly love you as a customer, but because they need to report back to Germany that the matter has been solved.

If I’m wrong and they deny the claim, then sue them. Yourself.

Once suit has been brought, you can go online and say that you have brought suit against Porsche blah blah ….  They most likely will settle.

Nobody said that fighting the system is easy. It’s sad when a Manufacturer does a holy-shit screw up like this…for everyone involved. Nobody wants to see someone in this position, and 987 owners are losing motors on a rather regular basis: your analysis of the failure rate looks logical.

The same applies for your driving and assessment of the car’s condition.  I could care less about your cat-back exhaust.  If the rubber was stock and you weren’t on a track that rivaled the Nürburgring in terms of mechanical abuse, this motor should have never failed.

The Planet-9 link you also sent to me was long, but points to a good conclusion: reporting this oil/rod bolt/IMS/whatever problem to NHTSA is a good idea.  Nothing screams bad PR like a NHTSA investigation.  No matter how many “Super” Piston Slaps I write on the matter,  this isn’t the forum to get your money back or your 987 back in shape.

Without the “Porsche owners are rich so who cares?” spiel…Best and Brightest, what do you think is the smartest way to get your 987’s motor replaced? Class action lawsuit?  Individual lawsuit?  Reporting en masse to NHTSA?

NOTE: Jack is also a LeMons racer and I’ve met him as a LeMons Judge.  His car (another VAG product) was well built under LeMons rules and they don’t drive like jackasses.  Only their most novice racer came in for a black flag, so it’s not a stretch to assume that Jack runs a tight ship both professionally and personally.

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Mercedes Hit With Timing Chain Issues on 2004-2006 V6 and V8 Models Fri, 05 Aug 2011 19:05:18 +0000

Mercedes-Benz is currently trying to recapture the number one position in global luxury sales, but  a quality problem on its home turf in Germany seems to be undermining confidence in the brand. Autobild reports that the M272 V6 and M273 V8 engines used a sintered steel timing chain gear made of various materials starting in 2004, but switched to conventional steel in 2006, eliminating the problem with gear wear. The problem: nobody seems to know how many vehicles built between 2004 and 2006 are affected. Mercedes claims, based on secret internal defect tracking, that one percent, or about 1,500 vehicles, are affected. If you have a vehicle with one of these engines built between 04 and 06 and your check engine light comes on, Mercedes encourages you to visit your M-B dealer rather than an independent shop, as Mercedes is offering free repairs to affected customers. And as Autobild’s Matthias Mötsch argues, when your motto is “the best or nothing,” the only answer to a situation like this is to fix 100% of the defects for free.

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Auto Dealers and Mechanics Top Consumer Concerns Of 2010 Thu, 28 Jul 2011 16:13:41 +0000

Auto dealers are often said to be the face of the industry… and if that’s the case, the Consumer Federation of America may have shed some insight into why so many Americans opposed a bailout of the industry. In a survey of 31 state, county and municipal consumer protection agencies from 18 states in 2010 [PDF here], the CFA found that auto dealers, suppliers and service garages were the number one source of consumer complaints for problems such as

Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes

As if car dealers didn’t have reputation problems already…

According to the report,

Auto repair problems were the fastest growing complaints at the California Department of Consumer Affairs. Its Bureau of Auto Repair shut down five Purrfect Auto Service shops after finding evidence of repeated fraud. In addition to information from complaints, the consumer agency obtained declarations from several former employees about the company’s practices and used undercover vehicles to gather evidence. Among other violations, the company allegedly charged for parts and services that were not needed, and that in some cases were not provided.

Other auto-related issues include a spike of complaints in Massachusetts about Toyota Tundra frame rust, “car buying companies,” unexpected towings, car title loans, online car sale fraud and defective tire sales. Here are a few anecdotes:

When a Virginia woman had her car towed to a repair shop because it was vibrating violently, she was informed that it was probably the transmission. She agreed to pay $3,000 for the work, and two weeks later the car was ready. But when she drove it from the shop, it shook worse than before. She brought it back, and after keeping the car for a month, the shop said that it could not find the problem and suggested that one way to stop the vibration would be to remove some of the bolts that attach the engine to the frame. But another shop that the woman consulted advised her that removing the bolts could allow the engine to fall off. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services tried but failed to convince the first shop to take the car back for further repairs or return the woman’s money. Now she is looking into other options such as small claims court – and a new mechanic. 
A Massachusetts woman placed a $1,000 deposit on a used car, but when she returned to complete the purchase, the dealer talked her into buying a different car on condition that a problem with the brakes would be repaired. But when she took the car through the required safety inspection it failed because of the brakes and an exhaust problem. Apparently the mechanic at the dealership had removed a fuse so that the brake warning light would not come on rather than actually repairing the brakes. After the Consumer Assistance Office – Metro West got involved the car was repaired correctly. 

The moral of the story: even those in the most basic customer service positions need to understand that their behavior reflects not just on them and their business, but on the larger auto industry as well. And no matter how much things improve on the OEM side, if the servie isn’t there, the entire industry continues to suffer from a bad reputation.

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