By on October 4, 2011

[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.

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By on September 30, 2011

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.

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By on September 28, 2011

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.

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By on September 27, 2011

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.

By on September 25, 2011

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.

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By on September 24, 2011

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.
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By on September 15, 2011

YouTube Preview Image

[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.

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By on August 23, 2011

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].
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By on August 19, 2011

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.

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By on August 18, 2011


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.”

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