Personal Log #451
February 28, 2010 - March 6, 2010
Last Updated: Sun. 3/28/2010
page #450 page #452 BOOK INDEX
Plug Required. It's not too difficult to understand the perspective of a Volt enthusiast. They see great potential from an engineering point-of-view and have no concern for the business. It's all about building a better car. As batteries improve, so will the appeal. Range can increase and price can decrease. That sounds like a great plan... 6 years ago. If it were still 2004 rather than 2010, that would actually make sense. Gas was still cheap then and there were no real dependency or environmental concerns. It was an optimistic time. Since then, we've encountered quite a number of market problems, including battery shortcomings. Business is struggling. GM is proposing a future with nothing clean & efficient for those without an outlet for plugging into. You'll be stuck with a vehicle only getting around 30 MPG. Volt isn't like a FULL hybrid, where the plug is an option. It's required. Not offering the choice is what some see as disingenuous.
Return of the Sedan. Remember those days before the SUV craze? The sedan was king. It was a midsize, midprice vehicle for middle-market. It was the ultimate balance of providing a steady source of reasonable profit for automakers. Unfortunately, the draw of high-profit from the monster-size vehicles really messed that up. The business model which has served the industry so well for decades was broken. To make matters worse, consumers were compromising emission & efficiency values to purchase them. Turns out, they were also over-extending their financial responsibilities to do that. Needless to say, that put us in an ugly place. So, seeing 2 hybrid Fusions today was a very refreshing sight. That was an undeniable sign of change. It's not just Toyota pushing to offer FULL hybrids for middle-market anymore.
Production Intent. Isn't it for hybrids to replace traditional vehicles? If that's the case, how come I get so resistance when asking for confirmation of that from the Volt enthusiasts? Some of their responses lately have been quite rude and almost hostile. Prior to rollout is the most appropriate time to verify important information like that. After all, Prius continues to be the top-seller in Japan (over 27,000 in February alone). So, it's not at all unrealistic to want to know what GM's production intent is. Will they scale back traditional volume with hybrids instead? If not, what the heck is Volt suppose to be? More and more, it's looking like a plug-in Camaro rather than an everyday vehicle like Camry or Corolla. Stating explicit goals, like Toyota's desire to produce 1 million hybrids annually within the next few years, is what we want to hear about... not MPG hype.
Reality Check. The price of gas is going up as the economy recovers. Toyota & Ford both really want to push hybrid growth. Consumer priorities are shifting over to efficiency. Price continues to be a major purchase decision factor. GM hasn't strived to meet requirements of the market. Volt is poorly configured to address those realities. It's the classic want verses need problem. Unfortunately, history has taught us that with clever marketing we can be convinced to buy something we don't actually need. Time is working against them. Those of us with years of market observation know that pressure is building and the hype is going to be intense. Studying their wild claims now is how we prepare to deal with that inevitable upcoming greenwashing storm.
30 MPG. This most definitely is regarded as the standard for "efficiency" nowadays. Talking about an effective campaign to lower standards! The latest effort, which at least shows the shift away from SUVs back to the sports car, was an announcement about the upcoming new Ford Mustang. Its 3.7 liter engine with a 6-gear automatic transmission will offer an estimated 31 MPG highway. Impressed? I'm not. The city estimate is only 19 MPG. But that's not what they focus on. Promotion has been that the 31 is better than Corvette's 29. It sure puts the 50 MPG some people see daily in perspective.
Jumping Ship. We've been told to be patient; meanwhile,
gas is now at $2.79 per gallon. We've been told price will be taken as a
priority; meanwhile, target market appears to be well above the middle.
We've been told the second generation will offer many improvements; meanwhile,
many of those in leadership are stepping down. This is why the well
informed are becoming so frustrated with Volt. How long? How much?
Who? To make matters worse, if you point out any of that, you get labeled
as a "troll" for disrupting the status quo. Sound familiar? That's
exactly what happened when things started looking bad for Two-Mode. When
the potential for mainstream became questionable, the reaction by die-hard
enthusiasts got intense. In fact, it was rude & hostile. History has
taught us that it is best to jump ship at this point. Hopefully, a much
more affordable model will emerge from the ashes. It's unfortunate the die-hard
currently feel that a balance of price & performance is considered too much of a
The Need. A friend of mine summarized the overall problem
well with this: "GM needs a leader that believes in hybrid technology with a vision to mass
produce a realistic car." We've seen lots of interest in
producing hype, a hybrid that draw a massive amount of attention at the penalty
of a limited target audience. Why deliver an over-powered vehicle when the
cost make it too high to reach middle-market?
That's something Lutz was never interested in. After all, supposedly
mundane vehicles like Camry & Corolla don't draw much attention. How could
they? So many are sold every month that you see them everywhere. Why produce
a ubiquitous business-sustaining vehicle when you can deliver a
high-cost trophy to be proud of?
Auris-Hybrid. A little bit more detail about this upcoming European hybrid from Toyota has been released. It will be a compact similar to the Lexus recently revealed for this market. That's no surprise. Reuse of frame and interior layout is a good cost-saving measure. They adapt the body-style and features offered to a particular location. It's actually Europe's version of Corolla. It's even available with a diesel engine. The hybrid propulsion system is the configuration we're already familiar with, the same as that in Prius... which could make the projected sales for the first 12 months of 130,000 units fairly realistic, since the technology itself is already proven and the non-hybrid Auris is already common. We'll find out soon enough. Sales begin in July of this year. It's certainly nice knowing that all the craziness lately isn't affecting rollout plans.
Lutz Retiring, Again. This is the GM executive who is famous for stirring the pot by speaking out, then others having to deal with his comments afterward. It's actually where some of the "over promise" comes from. High power muscle-cars were his specialty, so it's no surprise that Volt exceeds the performance needs of the middle-market it is supposedly targeted for. It's also no surprise that Two-Mode was given so much emphasis on power rather than efficiency. Of course, he's best known for his "crock of @#$%" comment about the effects of carbon emissions. I personally like his "nicely under $30,000" the best. So, it's been a bit of a joke knowing where his priorities really are. In the end, he was planning to retire last Spring... then the end of last year... now in the end of April. Whatever the case, it is yet another leader in the Volt project to step down. Can we hope at least a small of that has something to do with the need to scale back specifications to achieve the necessary pricing to make it competitive? Remember, he was the one who said hybrids don't make financial sense to produce & sell.
Short Month. Sales figures are now starting to be revealed. Despite Camry being in the midst of the biggest Toyota recall ever and the sales halted, consequently creating a very short month, it still outsold GM's Malibu. I can only imagine the stir that will cause. 16,552 was the total for Camry. 15,150 for Malibu. For Corolla, it was 16,996. All things considered, that's not too bad. Impala is the other sedan GM now wants to sell lots of. That came in at 11,740. For perspective, the vehicle which once commanded the spotlight was the large Tahoe SUV. With only 3,325 sold, you can understand how ugly it would get if I asked how many of those were Two-Mode. Cobalt is the traditional compact being phased out with Cruze as a replacement. 14,101 of them were sold. All those numbers are just snapshots in time, for the sake of documenting what was holding interest at the moment. So, don't take them too seriously. Always consider the long-term results. Prius is holding steady at 7,968. In perspective, that's not bad. But then again, Ford is expected to do much better overall than GM during these uncertain times and they actually offer a nice hybrid. So, comparisons could be considered cherry-picked. Realistically, Prius needs to get back on track for the desired 15,000 per month originally plan. Hopefully, that's not far off. This was an especially good example of why consumers in general shy away from first-year production. Though, who knew it would be part of so many other quite unpredictable events. Whoa!
Other Recalls. Prior to this big event with Toyota, how would have consumers reacted to other recalls? For that matter, how will they react to the 1.3 million cars being recalled today by GM? In this newest, it's in response to over 1,000 complaints about the power-steering failing in various models over the past 5 years. Hopefully, we have already peaked. It would be terrible to see hysteria again. Amplifying fear like that didn't seem to accomplish anything. In fact, people are already mixing up information... not remembering what update or replacement was needed for which vehicles.
Good For The Economy. Remember than claim. It came immediately after 9/11. That was the nonsense we had to endure as part of the massive push for acceptance of the monster-size Pickups & SUVs. We were suppose to disregard the fact that they guzzled so much in favor of the benefit they would provide for our economy. Jobs were more important. Sustaining business was paramount over concern for emissions or oil-dependency, which was rather trivial back then. Remember how cheap gas was? Anywho, those vehicles purchased back then are now approaching the end of their service. What do you think owners will now be replacing them with?
Speed Greenwashing. Part of the irritation with how Volt is being portrayed is the way enthusiasts mock the 100 km/h (62.1 MPH) maximum electric-only speed of Prius. They do it in such a way that people assume there's no benefit from plugging in if you drive faster than that... which couldn't be further from the truth. Anyone who's driven an older model down a mountain knows this quite well. The resulting very full battery gives a heck of a MPG boost even with the old 42 MPH limitation. Those who have battery augmentation see quite an improvement, despite also being limited to 42 MPH for electric-only. The engine simply runs at an extremely efficient rate when driving faster, allowing the electric motor to contribute more thrust than it normally would.
Recall Fear. Sure enough, the idea of rolling out a small number of Volt early has been dropped. With the bar being raised, expectations of flawless operation has made it too much of a risk. GM simply can't afford to deal with any type of negative publicity. Of course, it's at least in part self-inflicted. When you hype a new vehicle to such a high standard, people are going to want that to actually be delivered. It's really too bad the market here is becoming so intolerant. An update of any sort is labeled a recall. That's resulting in fear on many levels. Change is becoming more difficult. That's a step in the wrong direction. Bummer.
Outside Perspective. An article from China pointed out the response by the United States toward Toyota is being looked upon as an over-reaction. There's no hysteria in Japan. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The response here is generating a greater sense of loyalty. After all, support for a local automaker is important when your local economy is struggling to recover. Sound familiar? You have to admit, there was intense reaction for GM during the bankruptcy. What this means going forward is anyone's guess. Cultures are still quite different. Americans do suffer from both short-sightedness and forgetfulness. That's not good. The type of risks we takes are different too. At times, that has actually proven beneficial. At others, it has been disastrous. In this case, there could be harm to long-term relationships. It's another one of those "getting lost in the moment" situations, where everyone needs to step back to consider the big picture... and with this situation, listen to the perspective from someone outside of it.
Reliability verses Interface. Have you noticed how
these are being interchanged? Devices like brakes & accelerator pedals
have always been looked upon as the interface for drivers. If they need
adjustment or replacement, they weren't really considered part of the
reliability factor. When you ask a consumer about a vehicle being
reliable, the thought that almost unanimously comes to mind is the propulsion
system. That's probably because those interface devices are something you
can interact with, something you have the power to easily manipulate. When
in comes to the engine & exhaust, you're pretty much at the mercy of the vehicle
leaving that interaction to the mechanic. Heck, even filling up with gas
hadn't been considered reliability... until the idea of safety was introduced.
The problem is, everyone has a different opinion of what "safe" means to them.
It's subjective. Measurement isn't as simple as something no longer
functioning. There are varying degrees as to what people deem acceptable.
The market is most definitely changing.
Bulletproof. We've seen this type of misleading before when it comes to greenwashing. If you over-inflate expectations after-the-fact, it creates a sense of disappointment. That's what we've seen a lot of with the reputation for Toyota lately. Those hoping to portray it in a light of dwindling success are claiming owners purchased those vehicles with the belief that they were bulletproof... meaning they would never need any repair of any sort, that the vehicle would operate perfectly its entire lifetime. Since when is that realistic? And of course, where's the proof that the situation they describe is actually true? Have you noticed that nothing reported to NHTSA is actually validated? It's far too easy to make assumptions & generalizations.