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…And More Books…

January 20th, 2012 Comments off

I’ve finished reading Peter De Lorenzo’s book, Witch Hunt, which I mentioned in my last post. And I’m disappointed. It’s essentially a collection of De Lorenzo’s posts from his blog, Autoextremist.com, during the past few years of turmoil in the U.S. auto industry. While there are a few interesting observations within its 328 pages, it’s essentially one long rant about the demise of the American manufacturing sector, filled with vague (and not-so-vague) insults hurled at everyone in federal government, the media, the environmental movement, American consumers, the UAW, and the auto industry (excepting Bob Lutz of GM and Alan Mulally of Ford, on whom De Lorenzo heaps praise so excessive it’s embarrassing), and with an overuse of clichéd catch-phrases so prolific that at times it’s difficult to read. (By the end of the book, everytime I read the words “that’s NOTGONNAHAPPEN.COM!” I swear I could hear studio-audience laughter from an episode of Three’s Company.)

Early on in the book, I decided that De Lorenzo must be a newcomer/outside observer to the auto industry (uh, much like I am) to put forth his wildly unfounded opinions with hardly any facts to support them. But apparently I’m wrong – Peter is a long-time auto industry advertising/marketing exec and journalist, and is an acquaintance of many of the higher-ups in Detroit. His background gives some of his anecdotes much-needed credibility. Unfortunately, that credibility is overshadowed by his obvious disdain for anyone who wasn’t entrenched in Michigan’s automobile manufacturing sector for the past several decades, as well as by his thinly veiled fantasy for De Lorenzo himself to be named CEO of General Motors.

I’m glad I read the book. But it certainly didn’t make me smarter.

On the other hand, an acquaintance recently loaned me a book, Turning Oil Into Salt, by Gal Luft and Anne Korin of the Set America Free Coalition. Anytime a book is put forth by a “coalition”, one has to think it’s simply to promote that group’s agenda. And that’s true in this case. Fortunately, the coalition appears to be legitimately non-partisan, and their agenda is to end oil’s status as a strategic commodity, by promoting fuel choice. “So, why would you want to turn oil into salt?” That’s a metaphor: In centuries past, salt was a strategic commodity. It was once the only way to preserve food, which meant that it was a matter of survival. Those with salt held particular power over those who needed it (i.e., everyone else). Wars were fought over it. It had a major influence on geo-politics of the time.

…Sound familiar? …Once the refrigerator was invented, salt became just a commodity. We still need it. But it’s not a matter of our daily survival. We have options.

Turning oil into salt means “stripping oil of its status as a strategic commodity” for our transportation needs. Luft and Korin argue that this can be done by offering fuel-choice in our vehicles. Flex-fuel plug-in hybrids that run on electricity, gasoline, ethanol, methanol, natural gas, or diesel and bio-diesel, from a variety of feedstocks is technologically achievable (though, as the authors rightfully point out, involves challenges that could initially be painful and costly), and would allow us fuel-choice that would demote petroleum to just another commodity, and release the hold that OPEC nations have over us through its manipulation of the global oil market.

Turning Oil Into Salt is a quick read, and it only touches the surface of a variety of issues that must be addressed to achieve what the authors envision. Although at times a little off-putting by its repetitive attribution of many of the global issues stemming from oil as being tied to “radical Islam”, in the end the book makes the reader think.

And that makes us smarter.


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Books

January 5th, 2012 Comments off

It’s that time of year – when we all get to enjoy the bounty which was bestowed upon us by family and friends for the holidays…  By that, I mean presents. And in my case, those presents are quite often automotive-related.

This year, I received a copy of Bob Lutz’s book Car Guys vs Bean Counters – The Battle for the Soul of American Business.  It’s a pretty interesting inside-look at Bob’s final tenure at General Motors, beginning in 2001, up through and including the bankruptcy and restructuring of GM.  Once the reader gets past Lutz waxing moronically about the left-wing-socialist-media propagating the great hoax of global warming, and ignorant government bureaucrats promulgating regulations which favored foreign manufacturers (which, in his mind, played a role in the events that led to GM’s demise), there are interesting tidbits about the inept product-development practices within GM that led to mediocre cars that didn’t appeal to consumers.  Lutz’s focus is product design – creating vehicles that people want to buy – and he disparages what he calls the overly academic, data-driven analysis approach that the glut of MBAs that infested the ranks within GM espoused.  His bottom line is that you must create a great product in order to succeed.  Developing streamlined, efficient business processes to produce perfectly pedestrian vehicles will lead to failure.  Cars should be created by car guys. With this, I agree.  (Lutz’s book also gives an interesting GM-centric perspective on the government bailout of the company, which is a nice counterpoint to [while being consistent with] the version contained in Steven Rattner’s book Overhaul.  Which I was given last Christmas…)

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Coincidentally, I also received another book this year:  Cars: Freedom, Style, Sex, Power, Motion, Colour, Everything, by Stephen Bayley.  This mini-coffee-table book views automobiles as art, and the vast majority of its pages contain black-and-white photos of Bayley’s list of the most beautiful 86 cars ever produced.  The first 30 pages, however, contain text that set the stage for the reader, and describe how the automobile was at one time designed to appeal to the senses.  These moving masterpieces were metaphors for personal achievement, and captured the essence of what people aspired to be.  They moved people, rather than just moving them around.

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…Which I think is sort of what Lutz was trying to get GM back to.  It’s sort of ironic that the beginning of Bayley’s book effectively summarizes the point that Lutz is trying to make:  “…It was art that really made the car America’s primary product.  And later Europe’s, then Japan’s.  The management consultancy pioneer, Alfred McKinsey, believed everything can be measured and if you can measure it, you can manage it.  But art is as notoriously resistant to both measurement and management as it is powerful in its effect.  From the moment car manufacturers discovered art in the 1920s, there have been attempts to manage it, to systematize it, but none has been successful.  Even in an industry as hierarchical and stratified as automobile manufacturing, the great cars have been products of creative genius – aberrant, cussed, irreverent – not of scientific management.”

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As a final note, I also received a copy of Peter De Lorenzo’s book Witch Hunt: Essays on the U.S. Auto Industry and the Blithering Idiots Who Almost Killed It.  I’ve only just begun reading it.  While De Lorenzo, too, makes the point that, in the car business, product is king, the lesson that I’m really taking from this book is:  Bloggers shouldn’t publish their work in hard-cover.

 

Why’d You Buy That Car?

August 3rd, 2009 Comments off

The car you drive says a lot about you.  …At least that’s what the vehicle marketing folks would have us believe.  And it’s probably true – as Sperling and Gordon write in their book Two Billion Cars:  “It’s axiomatic in marketing that people value identity over practical considerations in making purchases.  They buy products that reinforce their self-image and symbolize who they want to be.”

Why, then, do people buy hybrids today?  From a financial perspective, they may be the more economical choice when our volatile gas prices swing upward; but if the axiom above holds true, this isn’t really the motivation behind hybrid purchases.  The folks who buy them do so because the car portrays an image of who the driver wants to be.  For hybrid drivers, the message is usually, “I care about my impact on the Earth.”  I’ve heard the term “conspicous non-consumption” several times recently to describe this behavior.

Unfortunately, it’s the techy, greenie, “first adopters” who are the ones who want to portray this image when it comes to automobiles.  As long as that’s true, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EV’s will never constitute more than a a slight percentage of our vehicle fleet.  How do we overcome this?  We either have to recruit more folks to the “green” movement, or we have to make these cars appeal to more than those who want to conspicuously non-consume.  I expect the latter will be a much easier task than the former…

This idea applies to more than just electrified vehicles; it’s true for small, economical cars as well (a topic which I touched on here).  As long as small cars are largely decontented appliances that send the message, “This is all I can afford,” they won’t compete with the massive “I dominate everything” rolling fortresses that roam the nation’s highways.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if increasing the price of a compact car (while making it more desirable) actually led to increased sales?  MINI has actually done a good job with this, producing a fun, attractive small car that costs a little more than most econoboxes, but actually offers something – a lot – in return.

mini hummer

"What're YOU lookin' at?!"

Now, I’m off to the garage to see what my cars have been saying about me…

The Art of Racing in the Rain

July 13th, 2009 Comments off

My dog died today.

I’m not a reader.  I mean, I read non-fiction books and magazines (about cars, mostly).  But, I only sit down to read a novel about once a decade.  That “once” came last summer, when I read Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain.  I bought this book because it was recommended in Road & Track, and when a car magazine recommends a novel, you’ve got to figure it’s not just another book.

Stein - Art of RacingThe Art of Racing in the Rain is a book about balance, anticipation, and patience.  It is told from the point of view of Enzo (whose namesake, Enzo Ferrari, founded the maker of those prancing-horse-emblazoned Italian automobiles in 1947).  Enzo is a dog who’s at the end of his life, and in the book he reflects upon all of the events that have occured during his time with Denny, his owner and an aspiring race car driver, and Denny’s wife Eve and daughter Zoë.  Now, I really have no frame of reference with which to compare it, but this is an incredible book.  If you love dogs and/or racing, you must read it.  …My wife has long said I am unemotional.  That may be true, except when it comes to dogs and cars.  And The Art of Racing in the Rain nails it on both accounts.

In racing, rain is the great equilizer.  It makes the track unpredictable, and increases the chances of the unexpected.  (I’ve had three on-track wrecks, two of which were in the rain.)  I found out my dog (coincidentally, named Zoe) had cancer a little over 5 weeks ago, when I took her to the vet to fix a broken tooth.  Her symptoms had just started, but at that point the mass was too large to do much about.  Talk about the unexpected…  Her health declined rapidly over the past month.

I read The Art of Racing in the Rain last summer just after driving from North Carolina to Colorado, by way of Utah.  Zoe was my companion for the trip.  I was thankful to have her with me, as she was a good listener, and she forced me to pause for rest-stop picnics and to stretch our legs every now and then.  I missed her tremendously when I had to leave her in Utah while I was in Colorado for 11 weeks.  …I’m going to miss her a lot more now.

Zoe, October 17, 1999 - July 13, 2009

Zoe, October 17, 1999 - July 13, 2009