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.

Rochester Technology

Rochester leads the region in hybrid / electric car sales (NPR)

The @NPR website now features a series called “Getting to 55 MPG,” which is all about the Obama Administration’s stated goal of increasing fuel efficiency in America’s auto fleet to that magical number. One interesting infographic shows just where we’re at in terms of sales of hybrid or electric cars.

The good news for Rochester, depending on your point of view, is that we lead the region. Whereas Buffalo(1.1% of sales), Syracuse and Elmira (1.7% of sales) lag well behind the average, Rochester is at around 2.1%.

Compared to the deep red (why not green?) of some California cities, its hardly a dent. But we’re leading locally and hey! That’s not nothing, right?… Right?

Map: Hybrid And Electric Sales Across The Country : NPR.


Bailout du’Jour

I have not yet commented on the impending doom from Detroit and the efforts to bail them out.  It’s been the talk of the Sunday news programs, however, and since I’ve been using today to catch up on the blogging I’ve not been able to do during my busy week, now seems the time to comment.

I have to start out by saying that Meet the Press this morning was, as ever, an exercise in false equivalence.  The guests where Carl Levin of Michigan and Richard Shelby of Alabama.  A guy who is in the tank for automakers and a hard-line Conservative who wouldn’t agree to tax-payer funded water if his hair was on fire.  This is not a useful discussion, since neither man is in a position to compromise, but compromise is exactly what is needed in this case.

Because if ever there was an industry I would be in favour of letting crash and burn – hoping that we could finally then let more innovative minds and more cost-effective business models take the lead – it would be the auto industry.  Nowhere in American business is there a more completely ass-backwards group of companies. . .  and that’s saying quite a lot.  Still, its not an industry we can expect to let drop without having huge and probably unpredictable consequences on the rest of the economy.  There are simply too many people working in the industry and too many subcontracting companies tied to it to think we can let the automakers drown themselves.

What is required is that we yes, do bail out Detroit.  But we do so in a way that guarantees us a better chance of a viable auto industry in the future.  It’s not a simple question of letting them go or handing them a blank check.  Carl Levin said today that the auto industry might have had problems “ten or twenty years ago,” but that they’re making changes.  Bullshit.  They’ve made half-assed efforts at going hybrid – itself not a solution to our energy problems – only in the last two years.  And what have they produced?  Hybrid SUVs.  Hybrids which get a paltry 34 miles a gallon, compared to the 40-50 MPG of Asian counterparts.  This hardly represents a true effort at reform, particularly when there are plenty of minds working on the issue in garages and backyards whose ideas are not being listened to.

So, we need not a bailout package, but an investment plan in our auto industry which considers the future as a primary means of growth.  We should demand that Detroit automakers actually engage small private businnesses working on energy-smart cars and use their industrial might to produce those cars.  Similar things are commonplace in the record industry, where small indie labels like Interscope or Def Jam are distributed by Sony or Warner Brothers, but exclusivity has plagued the auto industry.  Yes, I’m aware that there are downsides for Interscope.  But the point is that Detroit has gone out of its way – Microsoft style – to crush competition in its infancy, and it is precisely those infant companies that are generating the ideas we need.

And of course, we need leadership.  Barack Obama has been trying to stay off the stage and work on his cabinet, since after all, he’s not yet the president.  But the problems we face currently are much beyond the ability – and let’s be honest, the desire – of our current White House resident for him to handle.  As hard as it undoubtably must be, Barack Obama is going to need to find a way to represent a leadership role – even if that leadership is only a Senate-bound leadership – to help steer the ship as best he can in the next few months so we can get things done in something approaching a rational way.