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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.


Categories: Auto Companies, Books, Policy Tags:

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.