Cynical Synapse

Mon, 07 Feb 2011

Never Underestimate Detroit

Filed under: Bailout, Business, Cars, Congress, Detroit, Economy, Sports — cynicalsynapse @ 7:30 pm

Spirit of Detroit

Detroit, like any urban area, has had its issues, some for a very long time. And some have a considerable way to go before resolution. But never underestimate the spirit of Detroit.

When the Big 3—General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—were in deep financial trouble, many wanted to write them off. Now they’ve rebounded and it turns out the real quality issues are with one of those much-touted Japanese car companies.

As if with some kind of synergy, Chrysler introduces the 200 model by highlighting the strengths of the Motor City. Don’t dis the D because it will never be out. Not even when everyone wants to write it off.

Tue, 02 Feb 2010

Toyota Downshifts, Grinds Gears

Filed under: Bailout, Business, Cars, Congress, Greed, Politics, Unions — cynicalsynapse @ 7:07 pm

Toyota rollover

Although, to their credit, the so-called foreign automakers were largely silent on the collapse of domestic US automakers, it seems they weren’t that far above the fray. I don’t mean this as a vindication of domestic auto manufacturers. There’s no doubt their arrogance has been part of their legacy. The Big Three have been working on quality since the 1990s and have made great strides.

It is, therefore, particularly ironic to find that Toyota sacrificed quality, resulting in a major recall action. The recall involves more than 4 million cars across 8 nameplates. This should be a significant emotional event, although the mainstream media isn’t portraying it as such. What if this had been GM, Chrysler, or Ford? They’d be all over it like stink on rice.

Brake, accelerator pedals

Unfortunately, it seems Toyota has been ducking the issue for years. Don Slavik, an attorney representing a California man, said, “I think Toyota is still scrambling to find the root causes of all the sudden acceleration that’s been reported to them.” Slavik’s client’s wife died when their 2005 Toyota Camry crashed off a cliff.

There have been hundreds of complaints about Toyotas’ sudden acceleration, however. The complaints date back at least to 2003, but NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) routinely agreed with Toyota’s data that showed no evidence of defects. Some sources claim the issue dates back to the ’90s.

Since this problem surfaced, Toyota has issued two recalls. One, for floor mats, has been greatly expanded, as has the other, for gas pedals themselves. As part of an agreement with NHTSA, Toyota is applying a software change to shut down accelerator pedals when the brake is applied.

Toyota City

Everyone seemed quite comfortable dissing domestic automakers despite increasing quality gains. Where are those folks now that Toyota is having quality problems? Long-standing ones, I might add. Toyota’s January sales were down 16%, largely due to the recalls. That just adds to the woes of a sluggish economy which is hammering Toyota City, Japan’s own motor city.

Toyota has factories in 8 different US locations. They’re represented by 5 Democratic Senators and 9 Republicans. Of those, one Republic did not vote on the domestic automaker bailout while 7 Republicans voted against saving US-based car companies. They are Richard Shelby (R-AL), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Jim Bunning (R-KY), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Kay Baily Huthison (R-TX), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Roger Wicker (R-MS). Of these, Hutchison and Wicker voted for the Wall Street Bailout. How does that make sense? The point is half the Senators—all Republicans—from states with Toyota factories didn’t vote or voted against the domestic auto industry. Coincidence? I think not. Question is, what was their motive? Pro-Toyota? Anti-union?

Sat, 07 Nov 2009

Why Do They Call Them “Service” Departments?

Filed under: Behavior, Business, Cars, Customer service, Life, Paradoxes, Rants — cynicalsynapse @ 10:02 pm

An automotive service department

My 2005 sport utility turned over 170,000 miles today. Yesterday, it was at the dealer for the third time in a year. Last December, the driver side airbag sensor module needed replacement. In January, the passenger side airbag module went bad. The current problem is no heater fan.

This is my second vehicle from the same manufacturer, both bought new. I truly had no issues with the first vehicle, but have been less satisfied with the second. I attribute that largely to the dealership. For the current vehicle, I received a letter from the sales manager thanking me for choosing them, with a rubber stamp signature! What? When I called him on it, his response was “Do you know how many of these I have to sign every day?” Excuse me? If you can’t sign them personally, don’t send them. After that, I received a personally signed letter. Now you’re just patronizing me.

When the airbag light went on, I took the vehicle to the dealer. The “service advisor” bludgeoned me about preventive maintenance and whether or not I’d done what was in the book. She recommended services on a basis not consistent with the owner’s manual. Then, come to find out, they didn’t have the replacement part for the driver side airbag. So, they ordered the part, which I had to pay for then and there, and then they installed it when I came back the following week. They washed the vehicle after the first service, but not after the second. Do you only get one wash per problem?

No service

A month or so later, the airbag light was on again. As you might suspect, I was not a happy camper. When I scheduled the appointment, I told them to make sure they had the necessary parts on hand. Would you be surprised to learn they didn’t have the part? Well, they didn’t, but they were able to get it in and install it that day. Of course, it was almost closing time when I got my vehicle back.

Yesterday, I went to the dealer because I’ve got no heater fan blowing. That’s a problem in Michigan with winter approaching. Surprise! No heater control head on the shelf, but we can get one by Tuesday. Don’t they have anything on the shelf? Oh, and there’s a recall for driver side airbag module covers, which they’ll fix for free. Do you think maybe that might have been the issue with my first trip to the dealership? The heater control head will be in on Tuesday, so I’ve got to go back to the dealership to get the problem fixed. In fairness, the technician installed a jumper to bypass the short-circuit in the control head, but there’s no guarantee how long that will work.

Once the work was done today, the dealership sent the shuttle to pick me up from my house. That took a good 45 minutes even though it’s only about a 20 minute trip. Once at the dealership, I paid for the service performed and the part that’s on order, and was told the vehicle would be brought up shortly. Ten or 15 minutes later, I went in to ask the service advisor about my vehicle. She was on the phone and ignored me until my car was brought up and I started toward it. Then her response was there must have been a back up at the car wash. When I questioned this, she said policy is to not wash vehicles until the customer is present. Hello! Your shuttle is picking me up. Why not wash the car while I’m on the way so it’s ready when I get there? How come I have to wait an extra 15 minutes? “It’s policy to not wash the car until the customer is here.”

While they apparently had the driver side airbag cover recall part on hand, they’ve not had the part on hand for any of my last 3 visits to the dealership. So I have to buy the part for them to install it later and make another trip to the dealership to get the work finished. And they wonder why I’m not pleased with their “service”?

Update:

15 Nov 2009

I had intended to be at the dealership about 10 minutes before the service department opened on Friday. Unfortunately I didn’t set my alarm correctly, so I was about 20 minutes later than expected. They hadn’t been that busy the previous week, so I figured I’d be ok. On arrival, I was 4 cars back from the service advisers. Not a good sign. I steeled myself for a long wait.

Shortly, I got up to the service advisers. My adviser from last week bee-lined to my car, told me she’d take care of things, and offered coffee in the waiting room. She popped into the waiting room at least 3 times to give me an update. And I was out of there, including car wash, in under 45 minutes. Thanks for taking care of me this time!

Sun, 30 Aug 2009

Train Cam of Crash that Killed 5

Filed under: Behavior, Cars, Driving, Life, People, Railroads, Safety — cynicalsynapse @ 2:11 pm

Five metro Detroit kids, aged 14-21, lost their lives on July 9th. This tragedy happened because the driver was trying to beat the train. As the video shows at the 0:12 mark, the kids never had a chance. Nor did the Amtrak engineer have any warning of what was about to happen. A conductor discovers the tragic outcome at 2:25.

It’s simple physics: a 530-ton train, with steel wheels on steel rails, going 70 mph takes a long time to stop. And a 2-ton car is no match for the train.

HT: theblogprof

Wed, 19 Aug 2009

Michigan Unemployment Down, But Not Really

Filed under: Cars, Economy, Government, Michigan, Unemployment — cynicalsynapse @ 9:40 pm

Grand Rapids Press

At 15%, Michigan’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is down two-tenths from June’s figure. That’s still 55% higher than last July’s rate of 8.3%. And, experts figure Michigan’s rate will still be the highest in the country.

But, hey! Michigan gained jobs, right? If you consider 7,000 were in the hotel and leisure industry, it’s not rocket science to realize most of those will disappear after Labor Day. While there were other gains, notably in government and healthcare, retail and construction jobs were down. Excuse me? What happened to all those Stimulus bill construction jobs?

While Michigan “gained” 18,000 manufacturing jobs in July and fewer factory workers were laid off, don’t forget most autoworkers were already laid off. Since they were already unemployed, the Big 3 didn’t need to do their traditional July changeover shutdowns. To put it in perspective, from the Grand Rapids Press:

The rise in manufacturing jobs “does not reflect any real improvement in the job picture, but is just an artifact of the seasonal adjustment process,” said Rick Waclawek, director of the state Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.

Michigan has lost 119,000 manufacturing jobs the past year. About 281,000 total nonfarm payroll jobs have been lost in that time.

Hang on to your hats. Michigan’s unemployment ride is bound to be bumpy for the rest of the year. It’s likely we’ll see month-to-month fluctuations, making the overall picture less than clear.

Fri, 10 Jul 2009

Haste Costs 5 Young Lives

Filed under: Behavior, Cars, Driving, Life, People, Railroads, Safety — cynicalsynapse @ 11:36 am

Detroit Free Press by Regina H. Boone

Yesterday 5 metro Detroit kids lost their lives in a gamble they could beat the train through the crossing. The Amtrak train was going about 70 mph. It took about a mile for it to stop, leaving a trail of debris all the way back to the crossing. No word on whether the kids had their seatbelts on, but that probably didn’t much matter in this case. It’s also not clear if they were on their way to the beach or to one of their homes. However, the 19 year old driver had numerous traffic violations, including speeding and running a stop sign. And a judge had just suspended his license for a month for failing show his license.

The youngest in the Ford Fusion was a 14 year old girl; the boys were 18, 19, 20, and 21. Their deaths are certainly a tragedy for their families and friends. It’s also terrible for the locomotive’s crew. After throwing the train into emergency braking, there’s nothing they can do but ride it out, certain of what the outcome will be. It’s simple physics: a 530-ton train, with steel wheels on steel rails, going 70 mph takes a long time to stop. And a 2-ton car is no match for the train.

Some of the comments blame the parents, questioning why a 14 year old girl was in a car with 4 older boys, of which the 18 year old was her boyfriend. The girl’s mother had told her she had to come home rather than go to the beach, but didn’t expect the girl to comply. While I wondered the same, none of us who don’t know the actual details and circumstances should pre-judge. In any case, I’m sure that doesn’t matter in the least as far as the mother’s grief is concerned.

Another commenter noted the kids all probably learned how to drive from their parents. The post remarked on people driving 80 mph on metro Interstates, weaving in and out of traffic, citing the “me first” syndrome. People tend to become anonymous and invulnerable in their cars. Maybe that’s why the driver went around another car stopped for the gates and lights and tried to make it through the crossing. That poor decision to try and save a minute or two resulted in 5 young lives being cut far too short.

Unfortunately, grade crossing incidents happen way more than they should. All railroads are involved with Operation Lifesaver which works to educate the public on rail safety. The address both grade crossing accidents and the dangers of walking on tracks or in rail yards. Incidentally, tracks and yards are private property, so trespassers could also be ticketed or arrested. Traffic safety folks are also working to protect people from themselves. At Denton Road in Wayne County, a test set of barricades rise up when a train approaches to prevent drivers from crossing the tracks. Sadly, this test site is on the same rail line about 5 miles west of yesterdays crash site.

Update: The Free Press has the surveillance camera footage.

Update 2: Canton Police reduced the train cam footage which clearly indicates the Amtrak engineer was sounding the horn and bell. It’s also obvious the engineer had practically no warning of what was going to happen.


Tue, 23 Jun 2009

Obama: I Don’t Want to Run a Car Company. Wink, wink

Filed under: Bailout, Business, Cars, Economy, Michigan, Politics — cynicalsynapse @ 8:42 pm

How many times have you heard President Obama or the administration don’t want to run a car company? But, do the facts bear that out? I think not.

First, the Obama administration “fired” GM CEO Rick Wagoner. They pushed for the sale of Chrysler to Fiat. And now they’re involved in selecting which plant will build GM’s new small car.

While lots of folks insist domestic automakers are in the trouble they’re in for not making the “right” vehicles, I submit they produced what consumers wanted to buy. Consider reactions to Obama’s increased MPG requirements. The domestic auto industry is the victim of the financial industry’s greed and last year’s $4/gallon gas prices. The lingering effect is no one can get a loan to buy a car. Hmmm. So what’s up with the $700 billion to the banks just for that?

President Obama has said, repeatedly, that he doesn’t want to run a car company. Actions speak louder than words, however, and the actions don’t seem to match the words. And then there’s that pitch…


Fri, 12 Jun 2009

GSA’s Green Car Buy Really Brown?

Filed under: Bailout, Business, Cars, Economy, Environment, Paradoxes, Politics — cynicalsynapse @ 4:59 pm

Brown as in bullshit brown. The Government Services Administration (GSA) placed orders for 14,105 fuel-efficient vehicles using $210 million in Recovery Act funding. That’s an average cost of $14,888 per vehicle—not a bad deal for the taxpayers.

Green car

But what does fuel-efficient mean to GSA? Case in point: Chrysler orders amount 2,933 vehicles, but their line-up doesn’t include any hybrids except the cancelled Durango/Aspen line. At a $5,000 premium over the non-hybrid model, is it really worth the 3-6 MPG benefit at a measly 20 MPG city/22 highway? The non-hybrid flex-fuel version gets 14 city/19 highway. More importantly, though, Chrysler can’t afford to run the Durango line just for the Feds. Chrysler’s cars average 21 city/30 highway and the Jeep product line is typically 21 city/25 highway.

GM has a wider variety of choices, but their so-called fuel efficient vehicles are in the ballpark with Chrysler’s. They have an average rating in the 22 city/32 highway neighborhood with hybrid versions only a couple MPG better than their non-hybrid models. GM’s big SUVs have very similar ratings to Chrysler’s; only the Saturn Vue hybrid is notable at 25 city/32 highway.

Ford, on the other hand, offers the mid-size Escape SUV with 34 city/31 highway and Fusion sedan at 41 city/36 highway, starting at $29k and $27k, respectively. At $19k, the base Fusion rates 23 city/24 highway and the base Escape costs $20.5k for 22 city/28 highway. I realize the government buys above base models, and that hybrids include a number of options as standard, but there’s a hefty surcharge for the hybrid option. Ford has 7 non-hybrid models that get 26 MPG or better on the highway. The Expedition is in synch with ratings for the other big non-hybrid SUVs.

GSA declines to identify the models, leaving questions about just how significant the buy is. The statement replacing “on a one-for-one basis” with vehicles having “a higher miles-per-gallon (MPG) rating” is open to wide speculation. Across the fleet, even a mile or two better rating is significant, but not if it’s offset by cost premiums for hybrids and such. In the Chrysler example, most Jeeps are a better deal than a Dodge Durango.

Claims of helping autoworkers and automakers may be far-fetched, as well. GM and Chrysler are in bankruptcy, with plants shuttered at least until they come out of Chapter 11. In any case, the GSA buy won’t put anyone back to work real soon since Ford, GM, and Chrysler all still have hugh backlogs of unsold vehicles.

Perhaps more telling, GSA bought 22,300 flex-fuel vehicles last year. Even if all 17k in this buy were flex fuel, it’s still behind last year. And since GSA bought 68,000 vehicles in 2008, the touted 14,105 vehicles won’t save the domestic auto industry.

Mon, 01 Jun 2009

GM Goes Bankrupt; More Aid Promised

Filed under: Bailout, Business, Cars, Economy, Michigan, Paradoxes, People, Politics — cynicalsynapse @ 9:54 pm

General Motors filed for bankruptcy in New York today. From The Huffington Post:

  • The government has no desire to own equity stakes in companies any longer than necessary, and will seek to dispose of its ownership interests as soon as practicable.
  • The government will not interfere with or exert control over day-to-day company operations. No government employees will serve on the boards or be employed by these companies.
  • As a common shareholder, the government will only vote on core governance issues, including the selection of a company’s board of directors and major corporate events or transactions.
HT: theblogprof

So how does an extra $30 billion in taxpayer aid to GM fit into this? And why is $30 billion after bankruptcy a good thing when it wasn’t while trying to keep GM out of bankruptcy? Back then, it was about how the US automakers weren’t competitive as the foreign or transplant companies. Don’t get me started on domestic vs. transplant disparities.

There will be a lot of collateral damage, with plant closings, layoffs, and the ripple effect with economies surrounding those plants. Gas stations, mom-and-pop restaurants, bars, strip malls, and banks around those plants will see business drop. This will ripple to suppliers and we’ve already seen some 2,000 dealerships, with about 96,000 employees, on the chopping block. Even President Obama finally admits the automaker crisis affects the entire country. Suddenly, Detroit’s population is over 300,000,000 and not less than 1,000,000.

Unfortunately, more people can just say, “I feel your pain.” Too bad the short-sighted didn’t see that coming. While I agree GM and Chrysler (and probably Ford) weren’t as proactive as they could have been, they made cars consumers wanted to buy. Their quality is competitive but people want to blame the current situation on their mistakes during the 80s and 90s. The Big 3 weren’t healthy in 2007 and 2008, but they suffered a double-whammie. First, gasoline shot up to $4 a gallon. It takes at least 18 months and usually 24-36 months to bring a new product from concept to production, so it’s not feasible to react to market change within 6 months. Even the foreign manufacturers, whose products have been growing in size, aren’t as well positioned as they originally were. They’re just better positioned. The other kicker was the Wall Street melt-down and sudden lack of consumer credit. Interestingly, after $700 billion or more in taxpayer dollars, the credit situation is still practically DOA.

We hope the “good” Chrysler and the “good” GM will emerge from bankruptcy in short order. Those results depend on large government shares, foreign ownership (in the case of Chrysler), and concessions from union workers, retirees, and debtholders. Chrysler plans to trim at least 100 suppliers. Expect GM to trim, perhaps, double that. How many jobs associated with those suppliers. How many of them do the transplants depend on and will they shift to the remaining GM/Chrysler supplier base for economy of scale? US Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich) says GM’s bankruptcy means buy American but that’s not the same as buy GM or buy Chrysler (or Ford). The Big 3 have plants in Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere, while Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai have plants in the US. Which American products is she talking about? It’s time people looked at the real impact—the family-level effects—of this rather than their particular agenda.

Thu, 28 May 2009

Driving With the Hood Up

Filed under: Cars, Driving, Safety, Stupid car tricks — cynicalsynapse @ 8:48 pm

OMG! On my way home today, there was a Dodge Neon on the other side of the freeway with its hood laying against the windshield. How’d that happen? Was the driver looking between the narrow gap between the hood and the car body? At highway speeds? I wish I could have gotten a picture of this bizarre event. Fortunately, as I passed this guy, he was getting off the expressway.

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