Rochester Technology

Did you charge your car last night? The future at the Rochester International Auto Show.

Whether you’re in the market for a new vehicle, like to ogle classic cars from years past, or be near the newest and most luxurious automobiles you know you’ll never be able to afford, it is fairly safe to say car shows have something enjoyable for everyone.  This past weekend marked 104 years since Rochester’s first International Auto Show in 1908. Run by the Rochester Auto Dealers Association (RADA), the Rochester International Auto Show has been a yearly success, missing only a few years in its 104 year span due to the Great Depression and World War II.

Since it’s very early beginnings, the mission of the Rochester International Auto Show has remained the same: to showcase the newest up and coming vehicles to the Rochester market.  Whether it was intentional or not, the unspoken theme for this year’s show was undoubtedly the eco-friendly vehicle.  We’ve all heard of the Volt by now and various hybrid vehicles have made appearances over the years, but if you think this is a fleeting trend with only a few varieties, it’s time you thought again!

The most common eco-friendly cars on the road today are the hybrids. The term hybrid refers to any vehicle that uses both gas and electric propulsion. Currently, hybrids are the most affordable eco-friendly vehicles on the market because they still use gasoline approximately half of the time they are in use. However, Buick took the opportunity to show off their 2012 Regal eAssist at this year’s show, which is more of a light hybrid if you will.  When the car is in motion, it is running off gas; if it is idling, it immediately switches to electric until the gas pedal is pressed again. The torque from the electric motor of the eAssist gives the Regal noticeable pep as well as well as a 36mpg rating, which is nothing to sneeze at. Although hybrid vehicles are much more environmentally friendly than straight gasoline run automobiles, they do still produce the hazardous emissions we’re trying to steer away from.

The other notable category of eco-friendly vehicles is the all-electric vehicle, like the Volt. These vehicles are powered solely by batteries which are typically powered by hydrogen. All electric automobiles are hands down the most environmentally friendly vehicles available as they produce virtually zero pollutants; however, they are much less affordable than regular vehicles with an average MSRP of more than $40,000. In the long run, the money saved on gasoline may even out, but the original pay out for an electric vehicle is painful and enough to keep the majority of consumers on the path of regular gasoline run cars.

Never fear, though. Remember when things like iPhones, external hard drives, and jump drives were first introduced? How much did you pay for a few megabytes? A gig? Are you rolling in dough? It seems laughable now, but although prices of the latest technologies always seem unattainable, it never takes long for them to fall to the consumer level, and eco-friendly cars will be no exception. Chevrolet proudly gave a sneak preview of their classic Malibu model’s 2013 Eco hybrid edition which will arrive in dealership showrooms this summer, as well as delivered information on the upcoming Spark, which will be available as a more affordable all-electric vehicle targeted at city drivers within the next year.

As car manufacturers continue to move closer to affordable electric motors and farther away from gasoline power, it doesn’t seem terribly unlikely that by the next generation, turning an ignition key will be on its way to ancient history (which, for the record, is an absolute mindspin – from someone who’s driven a Volt, pressing a button and hearing nothing when you turn the car on is crazy. I thought I broke the thing). Even if global warming and ozone levels somehow turn out to be false, the worst case scenario we’ll be faced with is cleaner air and better car mileage for lesser money.  Personally, I can live with that.


GM and Segway Introduce: Sarcasm on Wheels

Just in case you thought GM was really taking this whole green car thing seriously, here comes the latest innovation in garbage can-shaped mobility from GM and Segway: the PUMA.

So, there’s your options: a huge SUV loaded to the gills with shit you don’t need; or a PUMA, which doesn’t even have sides and into which your confused kid might accidentally drop the bag of used kitty litter.


They’re Still Saturn

In response to some of the concern out there about Saturn’s potential demise, Saturn has sent out an email to it’s customers. They say that the idea may be for Saturn to go it’s own separate way, not to vanish as we fear:

Today, we confirmed that Saturn and GM would further investigate one of those options: a spin-off of an independent Saturn Distribution Corporation.

The Saturn Distribution Corporation already exists as an indirect subsidiary of GM. It’s the entity with which our retailers currently have their franchise agreement. An independent Saturn would still have its great retailers, and it would continue to source current products from GM through 2011. If successful, SDC at that point would source products from other manufacturers.

The goal—from a product perspective—would be to find future vehicles that match the Saturn Brand: fuel-efficient, safe, reliable and affordable. From a retailing perspective, we would build on our core strength of unmatched customer service. The same hassle-free experience that is a hallmark of the brand could be taken to even higher levels.

This leaves open the question of what they do to manufacture cars without GM’s backbone. The implication is that they would outsource elsewhere, but where?


Decision Making is Key

GM is in trouble. OK, I get that. GM needs to make sacrifices. OK, I get that.

But why the hell are they getting rid of Saturn? This is their best product line by far and the most affordable. Many people shy away from GM cars – and besides, they’re boring anyway – but they love their Saturns.

I think it shows the worthiness of GM that when pushed to make any decision at all, they make the one that will cost them the most. I was going to buy an Aura as soon as I got a new job. Now, I will be looking elsewhere.


The Bailout: A Crossroads

Does anyone else find it as strange as I do that, of all the harmonic convergences that could have happened right now, the two industries most directly in need of our bailout money happen to be the auto industry and the financial industry?

Think about it: history tells us that whenever a society chooses to leave the relatively slow process of wealth building through industry behind, it moves towards the financialization of it’s economy. That means making money through financial transactions like loans, mortgages and other debt, which is exactly what our banks have been doing for lo this past twelve to fifteen years or so. History also tells us that the inevitable result of financialization is a colossal crash of a type we may yet experience.

At this moment, we are confronted by two massive problems, both deeply embedded in our current economic situation, both with huge consequences for failure. We cannot choose to do nothing about either crisis, this much is clear. But equally clear – in this one moment, though it may well disappear a week from now – is the crossroads our nation is at. Do we choose to choose the hard work of building our nation’s wealth through a collective commitment to revitalizing the industries that make physical goods, or do we continue on with the relatively easy but frighteningly risky world of unthinkably high finance?

Not simply world history, but our own personal histories can attest to the fact that when high risk, high yield and low effort converge, the result is never very good for very long. I think that we know what the right answer is.

But if the two industries appear as a dichotomy of high-yield, low-effort versus low-yield, high-effort paths to wealth, it should surprise no one that the answer to both questions is exactly that same dichotomy. The financial industry takes, moves, swaps, makes and otherwise manipulates money and when that industry is in trouble, the only thing required to fix it is. . . more money. Give them money to balance their books, throw a few new (or newly restored) regulations at the problem and you’re halfway home.

The auto industry makes machines, a task which requires first engineering, then retooling entire factories, then training workers on new equipment and then finally production. And even this understates the challenge. I have not, for example, factored in the warranty repair shops and dealerships which also need to go through radical restructuring if they’re to deal with new cars and new technology.

Tone-deaf PR problems like private jets and “hybrid” SUVs aside, one big reason to doubt the efficacy of Detroit’s plans is the simple fact that there’s no good reason to think that a $15bn bridge loan, a $25bn bailout or a $34bn Christmas present will actually solve the problem. In fact, you could drop the entire $700bn loan the financial industry got on Detroit and still not see one iota of change in the next three years. Remember: hard work and low yield.

Nothing less than a radical restructuring at the top of Detroit’s power houses will make any difference to our ailing economy. And even that will only do just so much good. As our nation prepares to have its first “Car Czar,” I think it’s clear that many in Washington have already decided that such a move is necessary in any event. We’ll soon be nationalizing the auto industry of this country, which I don’t particularly support but can’t see any good way around, at least in the near term.

I’ve argued in the past that one possible solution to the problem of innovation, at least, would be to allow smaller companies who are already engineering fuel efficient automobiles to share the industrial resources of the Big Three in exchange for sharing the profits as well. But again, innovation is only one small part of the puzzle and there are many more pieces to put in place before our automobile industry is a functioning industry again.