Friday, April 29, 2005

 

Cali To Require Ammunition Serialization?

That may be the case, as reports The Auto Prophet. Un-fuckin'-believable. He states a number of reasons why this won't work; I'd also like to add that the prospect of reloading makes this an impractical idea (although I'm sure that most gangbangers don't exactly have a Dillion 550 set up in the basement).

Additionally, serialization fails to produce anything meaningful once the chain of lawful custody has been broken; i.e. it'd be impossible to tract stolen ammunition back to the actual user, and would surely put the victim of the original theft in a world of hurt.

Seems to me that the real intent of this law is to provide further barriers to those who want to enjoy firearms in a legal and safe manner.

 

smart

Every time I travel to Germany, I'm reminded of why I'd like a smart fortwo - they're simply an excellent commuter vehicle. They've got better fuel economy than many motorcycles and offer superior weather protection, and they don't take up much parking space. As for safety, well, I harbor no disillusions about surviving a 55 MPH impact with a Lincoln Navigator in one, but I don't see where that makes them a bad choice (last I checked, bicycle and pedestrian traffic still fares far worse in 35 MPH offset collisions). Too bad they're not being brought to the US, and it sounds like the division's going to get the ax due to annual losses averaging a half-billion dollars.

Part of the problem has to be the pricing - over $10K for the base model, and approaching $15K for an upscale version. Sure, you get lots of features for the money (stability control, automated manual transmission, etc.), but that's a lot of coin for what should be a stripped-down city car.

And now owners have to be worried about this as well.

I'm also reminded of why I really, really want a Unimog. It looks like a go-anywhere medium-duty truck, but really it goes beyond that and is more like a tractor than a truck. Indeed, Mercedes refers to it as an "implement carrier". I've seen these things decked-out in all sort of configurations for municipal use, ranging from snowblowers to bucket trucks and hedge trimmers (with a 8-foot-wide sickle-bar mower hanging off the side). This time, I saw one that had a woodchipper running off the rear PTO. Too cool. Haven't decided whether I want a 'mog, or a US 2.5- or 5-ton truck. That's not an easy decision to make. Either one can be had on the surplus market for less than a new compact pickup, though.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

 

Cool Product

From the Autoblog, a couple of gems.

First, I didn't know that Subaru had a Forester STi, but having now seen one, I might dislike SUV crossovers just a bit less than before. You'd think that the SUV-crazy US would love this thing, but once again Japanese car makers show that they're seemingly unwilling to give us "the good stuff".

And Buick's getting a RWD car, based on the full-sized Holden platform (also sold in a LHD version as the Caprice in the Middle East). Before anyone gets too excited about the return of the Roadmaster, it's only for the Chinese market. I lack the upper-management credentials required to make sense of this situation.

Monday, April 25, 2005

 

And One More For The Road...

GM announces Solstice delays - didn't see that one coming . And Toyota might raise prices as an act of charity to Ford and GM. Now I honestly didn't see that one coming.

 

G6 GTP Fuel Economy

GM vehicles usually are pretty good on fuel - not necessarly industry-leading, but not crap, either.

But the G6 GTP manages to live up to the worst Detroit stereotypes by pulling down a stunning 18/24 EPA figure, per Pontiac's website.

That, my friends, is a mere 1 MPG better than the 300C Hemi in the EPA City test, and actually 1 MPG worse in the EPA Highway test (a stock '94-'96 GM B-body, with a 260 HP LT1 and weighing about 4200 lbs, also pulled-down a 17/25 rating). The GTO with an auto gets 16/21, and 17/25 with the 6-speed - and that's a car with 300 lbs more weight and a full 400 HP.

The fault probably lies in the 3.61:1 axle ratio, but that's still quite pathetic - consider that the 240 HP Accord is rated at 21/30 while also using rather steep gear ratios.

EPA ratings aren't always indicative of real-world mileage, but even if that's the case, then GM still is going to have a publicity issue.

 

Recall Overdose

As I've written before (at least a couple of times), the auto industry is good at messing up parts that should be "home runs". And very recently, I took GM to task for doing a half-ass job on its recalls.

Having established that, one can only imagine the surprise I felt upon learning that GM would be recalling a few more cars (2.2 million), for things such as seat belt placement issues, burnt fuel-pump wiring, bent brake pushrods, and parking-brake failures. Wonderful - couldn't come at a better time.

When I swapped a 255 lph Walbro pump into my '96 Impala SS (to properly keep up with the stroker motor), I noticed that it had some charred fuel-pump wiring - nothing surprising to folks on in the B-body world. Additionally, it's a common complaint among owners of older GMT400s ('88-'01 C/K full-sizes) as well. Certainly one shouldn't expect a different result from putting a high-current load (and an unreliable one at that) on a 30-amp fuse, and then running 18 AWG wiring the whole length of the car. Not bright, and not something you'd be allowed to do in the walls of your home - so why would it be acceptable near the fuel tank of a car? Additionally, the wiring harness inside the fuel tank of my car looked like it was assembled by someone who used their teeth for the wire-strip and terminal crimp operations. Ugly.

The point here is the same that I've made before - there's almost definitely a significant additional volume of vehicles out there with the same defects, and so I'm sure we haven't heard the last of these recalls by GM. It will be stated that GM's doing the right things by recalling these vehicles, and that the media is making a mountain out of a molehill. The right thing would be to recall everything on the road that uses similar parts of poor or merely-adequate design, and the media wouldn't get the chances that it does if GM would perform each recall only once (or, even more radically, not at all).

 

Hello From Europe

To answer Oberon's question, they do seem to have the Internet in Europe. I'm in an Internet cafe in Köln instead of in my own room, though, since the concept of broadband in hotel rooms hasn't quite hit the big-time yet. And the keyboards are different over here - "y" and "z" are switched, and a bunch of punctuation characters are moved around. Weird.

The trip to Goteburg was a big success, but unfortunately my luggage decided to take an extended layover in Amsterdam, so I won't be changing my clothes until sometime tomorrow. Bummer.

The rental car here is a M-B C180 Kompressor wagon, which has a much nicer interior than I remember in the previous C-class. It seems to be a decent vehicle.

I'll conclude by stating that the Euro conversion rate sure blows compared to four years ago (when I last visited Europe).

Saturday, April 23, 2005

 

GM Bonds

The Motley Fool weighs-in on the idea of investing in GM bonds, while Forbes discusses the seemingly-inevitable fall to junk bond status by both GM and Ford, and broadens the scope of the discussion even wider:

Some softening of Ford's pricing of its preferreds was apparent in March, perhaps because some others are seeing that what's bad for GM will also be bad for Ford. Our good friends at Rapid Ratings also have had Ford as below investment grade for years, but that should come as no surprise. It is, in fact, surprising how many S&P 500 companies fail the investment grade test when purely objective measures are used. Examples are AIG, Boeing and Pfizer, just to name three Dow stocks.

Yikes.

Oh, and a kinda-sorta correction - I'd previously claimed that GM held nearly $300B in bond debt. According to Bloomberg, maybe it's only $114.5B, with about $16.5B coming due this year. Whew - I feel much better now.

 

Sorry...

...I'm not a high-ranking nerd.


 

More Suggestions For GM

Via InstaPundit comes this thread requesting suggestions for GM. The comments contains a lot of great ideas from some very bright individuals, one of whom runs The Ergosphere blog - the best I've seen on the topic of energy use and conservation. I'd recommend checking it out (I know I'll be doing a lot of reading there when I get a chance).

 

Success At Chrysler

Despite all the bad press about the Charger's number of doors, it appears that it's going to do very well in the market. Some folks don't want to see another success by Chrysler, and so they pretend to not understand what's attractive about an affordably-priced RWD sedan with a wonderful V8 (the 3.5 L V6 ain't exactly crappy, either). I think they're just upset that it's not coming from GM. I am, too.

Meanwhile, dyno data on the Hemi SRT-8 models is starting to come in. A co-worker sent me a link from the MoParts forum showing impressive numbers (dang near 370 RWHP) from a Magnum SRT-8; looks like that's backed-up by this post on the SVT board (scroll down to the 20th post for the chart). The torque curve looks great, never dropping below 300 ft-lbs (as measured at the rear wheels) between 2400 and 6200 RPM. It'll be interesting to see what one of these cars can do with drag radials, the right gearing, and a looser torque converter (I imagine that some recalibration might be nice as well, if the stability-/traction-control system is as sensitive as that fitted to normal Hemi models).

Friday, April 22, 2005

 

Hummer H3

I saw one of the new Hummer H3s on my trip to Detriot yesterday. Coming up behind me, it appeared to be some sort of Jeep in my rearview mirror, and now I can't see it looking like anything but a Liberty with fender flares and big tires.

According to Hummer's website, it's getting the dreadful 220 HP 3.5 L I5 from the Colorado, and has a projected curb weight of 4,700 lbs. Yikes. I can't imagine paying $30K+ for that. Hopefully the rumored turbo I5 comes along quickly, or GM figures out a way to shoehorn the 4.2 L I6 into the GMT355 (which is far superior to the I5 in ways that numbers cannot express).

 

School Of Rock

Best comedy about music EVAR! (and yes, I just got around to seeing the movie a couple of days ago)

Yea, Spinal Tap was hilarious, but ultimately, it ridiculed the genre. School of Rock embraces it. Jack Black deserved an Oscar for his performance, and there were all sort of nice little details as well - the "homework assignments" he handed-out were dead-on, and of course there's the chalk board scene.

 

Misc. Music Notes

Um, no pun intended.

During a trip to the Detroit area yesterday, I tuned into 89X and caught the new Foo Fighters single, "Best of You". Freakin' awesome - good dynamics, excellent drumming, and Grohl's voice sounds better than it ever has.

UPDATE: News on the video for "Best of You" here. I did a quick search for info on the song, and found that everything thinks it sounds a lot like "Everlong". I think that, too (to a certain extent), but it's the sort of thing that's best left unsaid. Also found an uncomfortably high number of posts on blogs that must be run by those of high-school age.

Oberon will be crushed to hear that Death Cab For Cutie appeared on The O.C. last night. Ouch.
Listening to NPR's Marketplace last night, I caught the opening riff to The Drive-By Trucker's "Dead, Drunk, and Naked". Better yet, when David Brown came back on the mike, he refered to DBT as "my favorite band". Too cool.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

 

Misc. Comments On A Couple Of Sporty Midsize Cars

GM Inside News heaps lavish praise on the upcoming Pontiac G6 GTP - without even driving it. That's some fine reporting there, boys - get back to me when you're doing something beyond re-printing press releases.

The specs look good, but I'm curious to see if GM got the little things right. Is the engine willing to rev without a lot of NVH? That's something that the 3800 has never done, which is unfortunate because it just lends credibility to the pushrod stereotypes. How about the shift quality? Those that drove the manual-transmission N-cars will surely remember just how terrible that shifter was - it felt like someone used rubber bands for shift cables. No mention yet of price, either. Hopefully Pontiac learned a lesson after slapping a $38,000 tag on the Bonneville.

If all of that stuff comes together, well - I'm still unsure of why I'd buy it over a Honda Accord coupe. But hopefully the G6 GTP does well in the marketplace and brings a bit of "halo effect" to the Pontiac showrooms.

I'm a bit disappointed that GM is going back to hydraulic power steering assist for the GTP model as well. Knowing what little I do about traditional PS systems and the huge amount of work that goes into the mechanical tuning of the valving, I gotta imagine that electric power steering has far more potential, even if these early systems are a bit underwhelming. Hopefully they don't give up on it altogether, because that'd probably hurt their ability to roll-out full steer-by-wire in the future. This is going to be one of those deals where an American OEM rolls out a cool new idea, kinda blows it by half-assing the product introduction, gives up, and then watches the Japanese perfect the concept to much fanfare from the press.

Meanwhile, AutoWeek reports that the upcoming MazdaSpeed version of the 6 will be delayed as Mazda launches other models. Given the driving dynamics of the rest of Mazda's lineup, one can be assured they got the "little things" right, and I've got to imagine that a $28K AWD 270 HP midsize sedan will find itself popular among those who feel a bit too grown-up for the typical sport compact. I talk a lot about the need for vehicles that'll drag customers away from Honda and Toyota dealerships. This is probably one of those.

 

Another Well-Deserved Recall Black Eye For GM

It's this kind of stuff that really frustrates me as a GM fan:

WASHINGTON -- For the second time in just over a year, General Motors Corp. is facing the possibility of recalling millions of pickups to fix an allegedly faulty tailgate cable.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had documented nearly 13,000 consumer complaints and warranty claims for Chevrolet Silverado, Sierra, S-10 and Sonoma pickup trucks -- models not covered by a previous tailgate cable recall in March 2004.

My '96 truck has those same cables, and guess what - the plastic sheathing has cracked and is exposing a corroded cable in several places. The recall last year for this problem only covered the last couple of years of GM pickups, despite the fact that this same design has been used since the GMT400 introduction 17 years ago. And this second recall would only cover trucks back to '98, leaving at least a decade's worth of vehicles unrepaired and thus likely to trigger a third recall for the same problem.

Owners of mid-'90s GM trucks will recall that the same thing happened over the last few years with defective wiper motors. That one went multiple rounds before my truck's problems were addressed, and by that time, I'd already fixed the problem with a trip to AutoZone (this, after my wipers decided to completely die during a springtime downpour).

If GM wants to get their recall problem under control and - even more importantly - fix their PR problems, they've got to stop playing games like this. It looks bad in the media, it irritates customers, and it really makes me question their commitment to safety and corporate responsibility.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

 

Quiet Time

Don't expect much, if anything, for the next week or more. The desktop PC at home that acts as the gateway between our DirecWay satellite modem and the rest of the network decided to cough-up its hardrive last night, and I'm off to Europe in another few days.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

 

10th Anniversary Of OK City Bombing

The Oklahoma City bombing took place almost exactly ten years ago, and many doubts linger about what exactly happened.

Some merely revolve around the question of John Doe 3 (Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols being the only ones officially connected to the crime, with McVeigh's connection to white seperatists who were into bank robbery and gun-running); others go further and suggest that the others involved were connected with Al Qaeda (this would have been through Nichols, who had a Filipino wife and may have met with AQ big guys Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed during an extended trip to the Philippines).

On the other end of the conspiracy spectrum is the idea that the federal government either knew that the attack was coming and did nothing about it, or that the government itself participated as a way to force passage of new counter-terrorism legislation - a modern-day Reichstag Fire. Some of the strongest evidence along these lines is the sesmic signature of the event, along with audio recordings made during the explosion, and doubts about whether a single charge of ANFO could cause this type of damage.

Regardless of the facts surrounding the event itself, there's little doubt in my mind that the profiling that followed (focusing the FBI almost exclusively on militias and racist hate groups) resulted in the government missing clues hinting towards an even larger attack 6 1/2 years later. If Al Qaeda was involved, the FBI's narrow-mindedness made them miss links to a much larger crime. And even if McVeigh and Nichols worked alone, the resulting focus on a very small (albeit potentially dangerous) group of organizations gave Al Qaeda the cover it needed to formulate and carry-out their plan of attack.

With Timothy McVeigh put to death at the hands of the federal government in 2001, and much of the evidence destroyed, it's doubtful that the truth will ever be known about April 19th, 1995. What is known is that 168 innocent people died, and if the true nature of the crime is never revealed, then it is impossible to state that justice has been served.

 

Honda And Soybeans

Forbes has an interesting article on how Honda got into the soybean business. It started as a way to fill their otherwise-empty shipping containers that were outbound back to Japan (where soybeans are quite popular), and now they even grow them on the infield of their test track.

It's a small piece of their business, but I think it's yet another example of Honda continues to innovate (to be fair, GM's reuse of their manufacturing waste also gets a mention in the article).

 

Frist Aiming For Theocracy?

I think that judical nominees deserve an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor, but the religious framing that Sen. Frist is building around the issue is scaring the crap out of me - and as the Moderate Voice reports in a great round-up of blog links, it's scaring a lot of other people as well.

I don't believe that an absolute seperation of church and state is possible in any government, but I don't feel one bit comfortable with what the "religious right" is trying to pull in Washington.

 

The Covers Project

Those that know me know I love cover songs. Thus, I think that The Covers Project is one of the coolest websites I've stumbled across in quite some time. The list of artists that they've indexed is, shall we say, quite thorough.

 

Silence Is Golden?

Interestingly enough, I haven't seen hardly any mention of this week's stock-market disaster mentioned in the "blogosphere". I gotta be honest and state that I'm not sure of anyone who consistantly blogs about economic matters from a conservative viewpoint (InstaPundit, LGF, and Power Line almost never touch that topic), and those that do the same on the left (Billmon and DeLong) have been oddly silent (both chosing instead to pile onto Tom DeLay). Centrist Matt Yglesias, who seems to have an increased interest in economics recently, hasn't touched it. Even Atrios, a economist by training, hasn't typed a word on the matter. About the only thing I've uncovered is a single post on Daily Kos, which didn't shed much light on the issue of the Dow Jones (but did to a "diary" including some interesting comments on the bond and oil markets). Nothing on the discussion forums I frequent, either.

Odd, since it seems like just about any faction could make use of the info. Liberals could use it as evidence of the ineffectiveness of the current tax policy. Republicans might call for further tax cuts to provide additional stimulus. Fiscal conservatives would point out the current account and trade deficits and point to those as possible causes. But no one seems to be taking the bait.

So with no expert independent opinion available, and certainly nothing of substance from the mainstream media, we're left only to guess at the significance of the recent market events. First is the possibility that we're headed towards another slowdown, as the stock markets are often a "leading" indicator. Could we be headed towards a recession? Quite possibly, which would be really depressing considering that those of us here in the midwest never quite experienced the last recovery. Is it just a slight adjustment, an acknowledgement that the run-up in last '04 wasn't justified? Maybe. Is the market finally reacting to the precarious situation that we've found ourselves in, with record trade deficits and no real effort from Washington to reign in spending? I bet there's a bit of that baked into it.

Regardless of the reasons, this coming week will be critical. Any sign of weakness on Monday will cause the market to dip below 10,000, and my guess is once that happens, we're going to see a new bottom for the market. Where that might be - 9500? Lower yet? - remains to be seen, and there's a chance that the market will simply rebound to the 10,500 area if investors see stocks as underpriced on Monday.

 

If This Isn't Scary...

Illegal Aliens Working on Jetliners:

About 3 1/2 years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, more than two dozen alleged illegal aliens — including four from so-called countries of special interest for terrorist activity — got jobs maintaining commercial jetliners in North Carolina.

They passed through criminal background checks and Social Security screenings. Six held the Federal Aviation Administration's top mechanical certification, allowing them to clear airplanes to return to service.

Scott Vines — who just learned that the quiet, unassuming Sudanese man who lived in the apartment below him was among those arrested — would like to know how.

"It's one thing to have an illegal alien working soybean fields or tobacco," he says. "But to have somebody working on aircraft ... that is scary."

Memo to President Bush and the slackjaws of both parties in Congress - seal the borders. I already think that the 9/11 attacks showed behavior bordering on criminal negligence on the behalf of our government; if we see another attack performed by illegal aliens, I think that anyone in Washington who's spoken against border-security improvements or has offered excuses as to why it's possible, well, those people should end up being taken away in handcuffs.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

 

GM Health-Care Costs

Wonder how GM's massive health-care costs are split between active employees and retirees? Wonder no more:

[GM] now estimates its health bill for retirees and workers will escalate to $5.6 billion for the year, from $5.3 billion, divided $3.9 billion for retirees and $1.7 billion for active workers.

Looks like someone should have done some better investing back when they were making all those promises to their former employees.

 

Things Are Tough All Over

Not to be left out of the profit-warning fun, Harley-Davidson issued one of their own today. Needless to say, their stock slipped:

"Management attributed the cuts to slow first quarter sales, but we think the issue may run deeper than that," said RBC Capital analyst Ed Aaron. "For years, neither Harley nor anyone else knew the true underlying growth rate because of supply and demand imbalances. Now that it's come into parity, we think Harley's underlying (production) growth rate is lower than either management or investors perceive."

Harley-Davidson, based in Milwaukee, said it would cut 2005 production by 10,000 shipments from its original forecast, and now targets shipment growth of 3.7 percent from a year ago.

Guess it's only possible to maintain a bad-boy image for so long while selling most of your (crappy) product to doctors and lawyers. Still, they're insanely profitable, and even after today's 10% tumble their market cap is still about that of GM or Ford. Amazing.


Tuesday, April 12, 2005

 

Jerry Flint Speaks The Truth Again

Flint's column at Forbes should be required reading for anyone in the business, and he once again is on-target with his analysis of car-buying trends in the first quarter of '05. He talks about three things I'd like to comment on.

First, where are SUV buyers going? His numbers show that it's not to mainstream mid-size sedans; at least not the top sellers in that class. I suspect that SUV buyers are more likely to find something like a crossover, or perhaps a slightly weird vehicle like the Mazda 6 or 3 (especially the wagon variants). And of course there's the Chrysler LX trio, which are sure to convince some folks that a big gas-guzzling box on wheels is not right for them.

Next, what's up with small-pickup sales? Simple - go shop for one. The recently-redesigned models are all big, inefficient, and expensive. Why buy a top-of-the-line Colorado when it's over $30K, underpowered, and neither significantly more economical nor smaller on the outside than a Silverado? The same criticisms (except for concerns about horsepower) also apply to the Frontier and Dakota. Additionally, the micro-sized beds on the crew-cab trucks are almost a joke. "Compact" trucks are no longer good values, and I think the market's reflecting that.

Finally, note the success that Chrysler and Honda are finding in the minivan market. Both are doing extremely well with their recently-redesigned product, showing big improvements over their respective '04 numbers. What really shocked me is just how well DCX is doing in this market - I gotta imagine that's a big part of their recent turnaround. Ford and GM just don't get this market, which is disappointing considering they've had 20 years to learn. Oh well. Nissan isn't doing well, either, and I'm not surprised by that - the Quest is just plain ugly, and not in an adorable way.

 

Why'd He Do It?

That's the question that Henry Schuster has for Eric Rudolph.

Rudolph will plead guilty to a variety of bombings tomorrow, and while a condition of his plea agreement is that he must reveal certain technical details of his crimes, he is not under obligation to explain his motives.

This has been a strange story indeed - from the '96 Olympic bombing (and the terrible harm done to Richard Jewell in its aftermath), to Rudolph's brother Daniel and the bizarre self-amputation of his hand with a circular saw as a twisted form of protest against the FBI's manhunt against Eric. I can't wait until the rest of the tale is told.

 

Lutz - American Engineers Need To Do More Engineering

Holy crap, the man sees the light! I agree with a lot that he says here:

General Motors Corp. executive Bob Lutz said Tuesday that U.S. automakers could streamline their design process if American engineers were trained more like their Asian and European counterparts.

"We are actually training our engineers to be managers while the rest of the world trains them to be doers," Lutz said during a speech at the annual conference of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. GM announced last week that Lutz was stepping down as GM's North American chairman to focus full-time on global product development.

Lutz said Asian and European engineers are trained in drafting and can draw a new design on the spot when they run into problems. U.S. engineers often need to call in designers to do the drawing and may take weeks to figure out a solution, he said.

"It's somewhat bureaucratized, and it's a slow process," Lutz said. "It's because we don't have the bone-deep understanding of what's in there and the ability to draw and model without pulling in a bunch of specialists."

Lutz said fewer youngsters grow up working on cars and playing with Erector sets, which give them the intuition they can't get from computers or mathematical models.

"Today everything is prepackaged and ready to go," Lutz said. "Worse yet, a lot of the tinkering that used to be done on cars is now prohibited by federal emissions regulations, in that everything is tamperproof."

Lutz said GM has been trying to combat the problem with a three-year-old program that trains engineers, including some in the middle of their careers, to do their own drafting.

I will, of course, disagree on a few things - that's what I do best.

First and foremost, I don't think it's simply a matter of teaching CAD and drafting to engineers. A poor engineer who's good at CAD is simply going to make mistakes at a faster rate than a poor engineer who must rely on a designer. There's actually the risk of removing a critical check-and-balance. A good engineer with CAD skills can be extremely effective, but simply teaching someone how to move around a mouse is not an end-all-be-all solution.

I don't don't blame federal emission controls for the lack of tinkering with cars; in fact, those that work on their own cars nowdays get exposed to a wide variety of technology. The high-performance industry is stronger than ever, and the hot-rodders I know aren't scared off by EFI, electronically-controlled transmissions, ABS, and traction control. In fact, we're embracing it, and I've become a much more effective automotive engineer because of the grease under my nails (and the dirty fingerprints on my laptop). There's no excuse as to why engineers shouldn't be learning about cars by wrenching on their own projects. After all, if I can't figure out how to modify a new car, what reason to I have to think that I can design a better one?

And it doesn't necessarily have to be car-related, either. Us Americans are incredibly blessed with a lot of free time (although it's not always apparent), and that combined with our prosperity (also not always so apparent) brings about the opportunity for hobbies. Simply engaging in a technical hobby of some sort - whether it's home renovation, hot-rodding, or dorking around with an old computer in the basement - brings with it exposure to both sides of the problem-solving process (defining the problem, and developing and executing a solution). Whether it's rebuilding a carb on your garden tractor or remodeling an old kitchen, tinkering also engages both the brain and the body. Our physical connection to our work has been lost over the years, and I think that brings with it a loss of mental connection as well.

But otherwise, Lutz is right - we're not letting our engineers do engineering. By and large, our profession has been turned into cyber-paper-pushing, and it's harming this country's ability to turn out quality designs in a quick and efficient manner.

In the C&G thread, some folks lay blame on education. I'm don't think that's the problem. There's only so much that can be taught in four years, and there's better places to learn the nuts and bolts of automotive engineering than in a classroom. Nope, it's best-learned in an extracurricular setting like Formula SAE (to name only one of several hundred opportunities), or better yet on one's own project. Wanna really good way to learn good design fundamentals, project timing, and budgeting? Build your own creation with your own money, and then trust your life to it.

Other problems include an increasing emphasis on the program management process, with a corresponding decrease in interest in individual skill. Sounds kinda Communist, eh? And then there's the lack of career path for engineers - technical skill carries very little additional pay. The path up the ladder runs through management. And engineering careers unfortunately don't tend to run a full 40 years anymore - I think there's this unspoken understanding among management that engineers are "done" after 25-30 years. Either move up to management or find yourself in the unemployment line, wondering what you're going to do for the next 10-15 years until retirement.

Engineering: It's not a job or a career - it's a lifestyle.

 

"Values Voters" And A Proposed Direction For Dems

I thought that this post at Daily Kos was pretty good (someone needs a better nickname than "Septic Tank", though) . First, the poster hits reality on the head by countering stereotypes of the average Midwestern Christian:

It says that all those Midwestern and Southern lumpens in their gauche sweatpants, flannels and crucifixes are slow-witted, pious, fragile and afraid. They of the patriarchal sky gods and the cult of the football just want to be assured that somebody's running things and will discipline anyone that gets out of line. The Dems just have to show that they can be stern in order to get right with rightwing voters.

This is just bullshit, as anyone who's ever been to a Harley rally in Milwaukee or a hunting lodge in the U.P. will surely know. Blue-collar Midwestern and Southern culture is as sacrilegious as it is sanctimonious and as libertine, if not much more so, as it is buttoned-down. Those suburban and exurban true believers in the Bush cause? We don't know them. They're friggin' pod people, those God people.

So how to connect with these everymen, the sort of guy who can crack off a few dirty jokes in the coffee room or utters some four-letter words after hitting his thumb with a hammer, but still goes to church every Sunday?

So if the Dems wanna steal some of the GOP's market, they might start by revisiting the party's proud libertarian tradition. Remember? The party of JFK? The one that kept business in line but trusted the American people to take care of their personal lives? The party that spent its time trying to figure out how to better invest our tax dollars rather than handing them all to Halliburton and catching the Red Eye to Florida for the latest Passion Play? There's hay to be made here in Middle America - if the "safe and sensible" centrist Dems would only pull their drooling heads out of Jerry Falwell's ass. And the best part is, they don't even have to come up with their own talking points - just borrow the Republicans'. Tell them to get Big Guvmint out of their bedrooms and keep Big Business out of their wallets.

I've been waiting a long time for someone to propose this - it seems like such an obvious direction for the opposition party to move in right now, considering that a lot of folks across the entire political spectrum are feeling pretty trampled-on by the Republicans right now. And there's recent history that supports this - the Republicans themselves took control of the House in '94 in large part due to their appeal to those who where feeling overwhelmed by the Democrat's attempts to push through a bunch of big-government legislation during the first two years of Clinton's term.

The party in power is always going to go on a power grab, and I think the American public has a limited tolerance for such behavior. I think it'd be in the Democrat's best interests to drag themselves towards libertarian positions, but I don't see that happening - they're still too enamoured with their desire for bigger government, and I simply cannot see myself voting for any party who takes that position.

 

The Impact Of Health-Care Costs

Fareed Zakaria, the political realist that helps remind us that not everyone in the political world is a partisan nutcase, weighs in not with commentary on the Middle East, but rather the impact of health care costs on outsourcing. I thought this passage was particularly coherent:

There are only two major areas of the American economy where costs have risen for decades at three to four times the rate of inflation: health care and education. (Think of college-tuition bills.) In both cases the consumer does not pay the full cost, and government, the ultimate funder, has little power to negotiate costs or to ration benefits. (In education, government funding comes in the form of tax exemptions, grants and low-interest loans.)

If people paid for more of their health care themselves, they would use it more rationally, which disciplines costs. But it wouldn't really solve the problem because despite the mythology, American health care is not a free market. It is dominated by government funding, through Medicaid and Medicare. The big difference between our system and that of other countries is that in America the government cannot (often by law) exercise its clout as a buyer to drive down costs. So the individual doesn't have the incentive to control costs (why should he, someone else is paying?), and the government doesn't have the means to do so. This is a recipe for waste and overuse.

[The following response is lifted from my post on this topic at The FAL Files]

The problem with health care is that the consumers of that commodity continue to demand more and more for less money. Sorry, folks, but procedures and technology - like 3D ultrasounds and MRIs on the ankle you lightly sprained - cost substantial amounts of money. But when those costs are hidden in a "pool", then there's little motivation to control your spending. The US spends more per-capita and as a percentage of GDP than any other nation in the world - that's what's driving insurance costs up.

Frankly, the health care I'd like to have is a tax-free savings account that rolls over year-to-year, coupled with true insurance that only covers major problems over a particular limit (say, $10K) but covers those problems 100%. With the insurance I've currently got at work, I pay the first $1000 out-of-pocket which means that my insurance doesn't cover my average yearly expenses (which are typically low since I'm 29 and in good health). But on the other hand, there's some pretty serious stuff that's only covered 80% by insurance. If I had to go in tomorrow for a liver transplant, I could find myself facing a 6-figure out-of-pocket bill, in which case insurance isn't really keeping me from losing everything I have.

The solution to the problem isn't lawsuit reform or any of that stuff - we need to treat our bodies better and establish realistic expectations for the level of care that we're going to receive.

As far as how this relates to the problems with corporate America, health care is a factor but not the whole story. Jobs are leaving the US because management is too lazy to find ways to improve efficiency, too scared to make the sort of capital investments that reduce the impact of labor on costs, and too unimaginative to develop products that capture the attention of consumers. And laborers are frustratingly unwilling to use their talents and skills, using low wages as an excuse for poor performance.

Monday, April 11, 2005

 

GM To Suppliers - Push Prices Lower

In a totally-expected act of futility, GM has requested that suppliers push prices lower. Sure, they pay lip service to things like quality, technology, and responsiveness, but despite signs to the contrary just after Lutz took the reigns, Purchasing still rules over Engineering in the world of GM - and that means that price is the only thing that counts.

The first issue is that the vast majority of GM suppliers are already running on razor-thin margins. That's bad in itself, because that leaves suppliers in a precarious short-term situation (which means that a single vendor could put a big hurt on their customers).

But worse yet is that thin or non-existant profits mean that there's no money to roll back into R&D or capital improvements, which means that GM might be getting the same technology now that they were getting years ago - or at the very best, they'll be getting the leftovers of OEMs who actually pay suppliers for hard work and innovation.

The final issue is that GM's somewhat-unspoken requirement that suppliers meet "world-class" prices usually means one thing - moving work to China. That actually presents two problems. First is that work moved to China means fewer people employed in the US - that means fewer jobs for domestic workers, and thus fewer potential customers for GM (while workers in the US may not be able to afford many new-car purchases, I assure you the situation is much worse outside of the US - which is why so many economies are dependant on exports). The second problem with this is that foreign components erode the perception that GM cars are "American", and I've got a strong feeling that many GM sales (and of the Big 3 in general) can be attributed to little beyond where people think they're built. Destroy that, and I think you destroy the Big 3.

 

The Little Rovers That Could

Give it up for the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit, who are currently in the 14th month of what was supposed to be a 3-month mission. Helped by what's surely a great design and some good luck (Spirit's panels got blown clean by a wind gust), they're still driving around and collecting data, and NASA's announced that they're funding the project for another 18 months.

Surely, this is great news for NASA, and hopefully paves the way for future exploration.

 

Playing Games With Emission Claims

While surfing the political blogs, I came across a link for the UCSAction Center, which is claiming that the automakers are being deceptive when advertising that their vehicles are "virtually emissions-free". They ask that visitors send a e-mail message to the FTC that contains the following language:

The “virtually emission-free” claim in the advertisement is not buttressed by any explanatory language, thereby making it seem to reasonable consumers and the decision makers this ad was originally targeted toward (it ran in the National Journal’s Congress Daily in January) that virtually nothing is coming out of every new car and light truck the Alliance’s members made in 2005, from the Toyota Prius to GM’s Hummer. However, data from the Environmental Protection Agency demonstrates that the dirtiest autos made today actually emit 40 times more smog-forming pollution than a Ford Escape Hybrid.

Even if accurate, what does this mean in real-world terms? Take a look at a chronology of NOx (oxides of nitrogen) emissions. Notice the dramatic reduction even in the past few years with the Tier II requirements that just went into effect; this, even after maximum NOx emissions decreased by a factor of 10 between 1975 and 1999.

While certainly much has yet to be done to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, let's allow the automakers to pat themselves on the back for all that's been done to reduce the other tailpipe emissions. Certainly we've got other, bigger, fish to fry when it comes to reducing our overall environmental impact, and vilifying cars does little to help move that process along.

 

GM Speaks Out, Says Little

Well, GM's getting mouthy lately, which could be some new-found attitude or just a lot of hot air intended to prop up their position for the folks on Wall Street.

First, they're under the perception that SUV sales aren't sinking because of gas prices:

During a conference call with auto analysts and journalists April 1, Ballew criticized them for also linking rising gasoline prices to falling SUV sales.

"That's poor analysis and poor journalism," Ballew snapped.

As he has repeatedly in recent months, Ballew insisted that sales of big SUVs, such as the Chevrolet Suburban, are sliding because GM's vehicles are nearing the end of their life cycle.

Ford's SUV sales are off, Ballew said, because shoppers aren't impressed with Ford's offerings, which received minor styling changes several years ago. Together, GM and Ford control about 60 percent of the SUV market.

Furthermore, Ballew and some analysts say that many SUV owners are trading in their rigs for full-size pickups, which drink just as much gasoline as big SUVs.

GM sold more pickups in March than in any month since 1978, Ballew said. Some analysts say the big four-door pickup has replaced the SUV as the "cool" vehicle to own.

Ford's SUVs have received more than "minor changes" over the past "several years"; the Escape just received a refresh, and the Explorer and Expedition have both received major revamps in the past three years. Nope, I don't think that's the reason for Ford's sinking SUV sales.

I also find it interesting that Ballew points out the popularity of four-door pickups. A large number of those are sold as "heavy-duty light trucks", i.e. 3/4- or 1-tons, and a significant number of those are sold with fuel-efficient - and highly profitable - diesel engines (the "take" rate on diesels varies from 30% on GMs to 70% on Dodges according to the numbers I saw a couple of years ago). Those same engines aren't available in most SUVs (the Ford Excursion being the exception), despite the fact that GM offers the Suburban as a 3/4-ton. Offer the diesel, and I bet that GM's SUV sales will improve. And why are all those diesel pickups being sold right now? Fuel economy is a huge factor in that decision.

Next, Lutz took on some questions from a Morgan Stanley analyist; what's interesting is not necessarily his responses (the questions centered around the important of options and features and could have probably been answered "correctly" by any junior high student who reads auto mags in study hall), but rather an interesting bit of sales statistical data:

The Prius outsold, in no particular order, the big Chevy Suburban sport utility vehicle, the Ford Expedition large SUV, and Toyota's own big Sequoia SUV, whose sales fell 12.5% last month. All those vehicles easily outsold the Prius a year ago. Domestic large SUVs, as a group, were stacked up on dealer lots at the end of March, with 120 days' supply, according to Autodata Corp.

The Prius also outsold other hybrid cars, but lower-volume rivals did well relative to their previous sales. Honda says it sold 2,896 of its hybrid Honda Civics, the third-best month ever for that model, while consumers bought 1,862 hybrid Honda Accords -- the best month yet for that model. Ford said its hybrid SUV, the Ford Escape, had its best month yet with sales of 1,569 vehicles.

Taken together, sales of these hybrid vehicles totaled 16,563 vehicles in March -- more than Ford's Lincoln brand or Nissan's Infiniti brand.

Holy crap. That really puts things in perspective, eh? Imagine what a division full of hybrids models could accomplish in the marketplace right now. Toyota obviously imagined that some years ago, judging by the rate at which they're introducing new product (and given typical development times, they rolled the dice and kicked off these new hybrids well before the Prius became a success).

Also note that Toyota's Sequoia isn't performing well in the marketplace. GM's probably got a dumb-sounding excuse for that as well.

Anyways, the point of all this? I think that the louder GM gets, the more clueless they sound. For their sake, they'd better hope I'm wrong and they're right, or else dropping everything to launch the GMT-900s is going to look quite foolish in another year or two.

EDIT -

I forgot to comment on this statement by Lutz during the Morgan Stanley telecon:

Q: Diesel?

A: Almost sine qua non in Europe and almost irrelevant in the United States for passenger cars.

I personally disagree - I think a lot of those diesel truck owners would also like a diesel Cobalt, Five Fusion, or 300C parked in the driveway.

 

Car Sharing Made Easy

My wife called me into the living room a while back to watch a TV news segment on Zipcar and Flexcar, two new "car-sharing" services that are operating in some US metro areas. The concept is simple - locate a car near you, use it, and pay the fee. I gotta imagine this is great for those that live in urban areas and rarely need a car. Anyways, I had forgotten about it until the Carpundit wrote an excellent review on his experience with the service.

I wish there was a way to make this work in other areas as well. When you think about it, we tie up a substantial amount of our personal resources (i.e. money) in our cars, and then proceed to use them for perhaps a couple of hours a day. And it's not just cars and trucks, either - think of the tools in the garage, or take a look at all the idle construction, transportation, and agricultural equipment that's not making its owners any money.

A supposed advantage of capitalism is that it provides for effective allocation of resources (of course that assumes rational behavior). Hopefully we can get some more smart logistical types working on innovative solutions to the transportation problem while still maintaining personal freedom. I think that these car-sharing services are big step in the right direction. It'll be interesting to see how well they fit people's needs.

Friday, April 08, 2005

 

Mower Blogging

Talking about lawnmowers is all the rage right now. Last fall, I decided to go in a different direction for my mowing needs.

Since I only bought a back blade and a finish mower, it's time to start thinking about a proper rough-cut deck. I'm still undecided about going cheap with something from TSC or Northern Tool, or dropping about twice as much on a higher-quality deck. I spent the extra money on a finish mower since I wanted a quality cut and wanted it for the next few decades, but I'm not so sure I'll be using a Bushhog-type deck as often - perhaps a couple of times a year - and it's only to knock down weeds in the field.

I'm also undecided on the R3 turf tires, even those on my tractor are relatively aggressive. They obviously work fine around the yard, but I wasn't impressed with their traction when clearing snow this past winter (um, you don't say?), and there's been a few times that they've stopped me from moving as much dirt as I'd like with one pass of the loader. But I'm not sure that R4 "industrial" tires would be much better, since they're still a floatation-type tire. R1 agricultural tires would be great, except for whenever I need to drive across the lawn, which is most of the time. See here for pictures of all three tires (L-R, it's R3, R1, and R4).

 

DeLay = Clinton?

Thoughts Online weighs in with a comparision between Tom DeLay and Bill Clinton that pretty much confirms what I, and a hundred million others, have been saying for years - both parties are filled with the same type of sleezebags.

Clearly, the Republicans have long forgetten what got them into office (methinks that DeLay would suffer badly if judged by the standards established for Congress in the Contract With America), and I think that if they keep this up, they're going to find themselves booted out of Washington over the next few election cycles.

I'm anxious to see if we ever recover from the LBJ/Nixon era that put this country into such a funk.

 

Advanced Troubleshooting

My current "beater" is a '91 Chevy Caprice wagon, representing a total investment of perhaps $1500. It's not pretty, but it's functional, and I just wanted something to commute in so I could keep the miles off my pickup and perhaps save a bit of fuel while I'm at it (20 MPG is great when you're used to 13 MPG).

But much to my dismay, while driving home in a fierce snowstorm a couple of months ago, it suddenly died. Driving along at 45 MPH, the engine just quit. Numerous attempts at restarting resulted in strong cranking, but it wouldn't catch fire - not even so much as a stumble or cough. A brief inspection while waiting for the tow truck revealed that the SES ("check engine" light) did not illuminate during the bulb check or with terminals A and B of the ALDL connector jumped (this should have resulted in a flashing SES). All of the fuses in the dash-mounted fuseblock (according to the owners manual, three of the fuses affect ECM function) passed a brief visual inspection, and there is no underhood fuseblock such as that used on GM vehicles starting in the mid-90s.

Unfortuantely, after getting a ride home behind a F-450 (there's something shameful about getting rescued by a Ford) and sitting in my driveway for a while, it started right up again. There went my evidence. Inspection of the underdash wiring revealed little (except for a starter wire mangled by the previous owner's alarm install, which was unrelated to this failure but another problem waiting to happen). I soaked down the ignition module and distributor cap with a spray bottle, but that didn't result in any abnormal behavior. With nothing left to do but drive it around and wait for it to happen again, I armed myself with a DMM, schematics, and a tool kit.

And it happened yesterday during my lunch break, just as I was completing a left-hand turn. The engine died, and the SES lamp was dark with the key in the Run position. I coasted into a parking lot and went about the process of pulling the ECM and checking the appropriate power and ground connections at the harness, suspecting that's where my troubles lied. Nope - I had +12V and ground wherever they were required. Drats - that leaves the ECM (GM ECMs are not known for failures, even after over a decade in service).

Back at the office, I rigged-up a temporary harness (using Molex CL-Grid terminals) that allowed me to test the basic function of the ECM. Hmm - it works on the bench. That leaves an intermittent failure of either the ECM or the wiring (probably the later) - not what I wanted to deal with.

My friend Josh, fellow B-body owner and electrical troubleshooting genius (he works in the lift-truck repair industry) showed up after work and brought me back to my stranded car. Swapping in the ECM from his car didn't fix the problem, and my ECM worked fine in his car, verifying what I had found on the bench - the ECM is good. Further investigation ruled out excessive resistance in the ground path. That left the +12V supply. The open-circuit voltage looked just fine, but what about its performance under load?

With a whole lot of wiggling around, I was able to back-probe the connectors with the harness plugged into the ECM - not an easy task when it's tucked up in the passenger's-side kickpanel.
This revealed a solid 12.4 V on the Run/Start/Bulbtest supply, but only 1.8 V on the Hot At All Times terminals. That explains a lot. But what of the root cause? According to the owner's manual and a Haynes manual, this circuit is feed by one of the fuses in the dash-mounted fuseblock, but some further investigation of other schematics that I had pulled off the 'net showed the terminals I was probing were actually fed by an underhood fuse.

Keep in mind that this vehicle is from the era before underhood Maxi-fuses, where fusible links (basically a wire that melts when exposed to excessive current) provided the feed from the battery to the interior fuse block (short-circuit protection being required between the battery and the firewall, in case a wire was cut during a collision or just through normal wear). But this car has something odd - a little fuseholder next to the fuel-pump relay, looking somewhat like a Weatherpac connector and holding a standard Mini-fuse. This apparently provides power to the ECM and the fuel pump, but doesn't get mention in the owner's manual, nor is it clearly called-out by Haynes. Inside was this 30-amp fuse:



Looks fine, right? It checks out good with a ohmmeter (never depend on visual inspection to tell you if a fuse is good or not).

Wiggling around the fuseholder resulted in a SES light that'd flash on and off - we'd found the general area of the problem. It didn't seem to be related to wiring strain, and thus was probably the fuseholder itself as twisting the fuse in the holder caused the problem. We performed a precision adjustment of the holder's terminals, plugged the fuse back in, and... nothing.

Take a closer look at the fuse. Instead of the legs and link being stamped from one piece of material (as Littelfuse typically does) this has two seperate legs connected by a link that's spotwelded in place. You can see bubbled melted plastic where those welds are located, presumably from heat caused by excessive resistance at the welds. Once the plastic got soft, it didn't support the fuse internals, and a crack in one of the welds probably developed.

Stealing a quality 30 A fuse from the defroster circuit has so far cured the problem.

The point? There really isn't one, except that electrical troubleshooting is a real bitch, and that one should never get hung-up on assumptions or "pet theories" while troubleshooting. The above represents at least 3 hours of work by an automotive electrical engineer and a experienced technician (not to mention the driving time required for the problem to reoccur). What are the odds that this would have been properly troubleshot by a repair shop?

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

 

Nausea. Violent Nausea.

I'm used to the occupational hazard of roadkill while out taking rides on the local roads, and sometimes the flattened carcasses just happen to be of the striped variety. But dang if I didn't come across a really fresh one today, and just as my stomach stopped doing backflips, there was a second one. I could have done without that.

Still, it's dang enough impossible to ruin a 70-degree day in April, and a bit of objectionable odor and a few obnoxious dogs certainly didn't do much to detract from a wonderful ride through the countryside.

 

Patriots To Restore Checks And Balances

The PRCB is a bipartisan network that aims to reign-in the USA PATRIOT Act without eliminating it, especially focusing on the upcoming fight to remove "sunset" provisions that are currently in place. I'd recommend checking them out. Hopefully their measured and carefully-considered opposition to certain portions of the bill will allow them to receive the appropriate amount of attention from legislators (but I'm not holding my breath).

 

Clerks 2

I can hardly wait.

Also in the works - a romantic comedy starring Paris Hilton and Jason Mewes, "in the vein of Swingers". I couldn't make this stuff up.

 

LED Headlamps On The Way

Visteon is reporting that LED headlamps are on the way.

Having worked with white LEDs (in an interior indicator application) quite a bit in the past 3 years, I can say that indeed they've got significant advantages over incadescent bulbs - smaller, "whiter", cooler, more efficient, and certainly much more durable (a glow-hot filament and vibration are poor companions). And for all these reasons, I've been switching over to LED flashlights (I'm partial to Streamlight's low-cost models such as the 3N and 4AA). So I'm anxious to see them put into mainstream use for car headlamps, as well as building lighting.

Plus, it'd be nice to find a better use for tungsten than to burn it up and throw it away (it should be noted that China controls approximately 45% of the world's known reserves and produces 70% of the world's tungsten output).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

 

In Other Scary News

...well, there's this:

Cash-strapped New Haven is a pioneer in using the so-called BootFinder system. The objective: snare people who haven't paid car taxes. (Connecticut is among a handful of states where local governments levy annual fees, typically a few hundred dollars per vehicle, based on the value of residents' automobiles.)

The system is comprised of an infrared camera that rapidly scans license plates and, connected to a laptop computer in the New Haven system, scours a list of car tax delinquents. Previously, New Haven officials had to rely on mailed notices and phone calls to try to collect overdue car taxes.

Don't renew your tags, and your car gets towed, after the police snoop for it in your driveway. At the very least, doesn't that seem just a bit severe for what's basically an expired-tag violation?

I'm simply amazed at the lengths to which governments will go towards collecting unpopular taxes, and the fact that people just keep on re-electing the representatives who implement those taxes.

 

Debate On Patriot Act Renewal Heats Up

There's some good commentary at The High Road.

I'm undecided as to which is my least-favorite part of the law - the sneak-and-peak search, or the ability to pull library records in secret. Or maybe it's the lack of due process for those held without being charged with a crime. But regardless of what I like or don't like, there'd better best some real debate on the issue this time, and hopefully that includes some frank discussion about how many times the PA has been used to prosecute terrorists vs. the number of times that it's been used in non-terrorist investigations.

Is the Patriot Act the equivalent of the Enabling Act, as some have suggested? Probably (and hopefully!) not. And I know that the "slippery slope" argument is a logical fallacy. But even given that, this law needs to go - even the simple appearance of infringement upon our civil liberties should be considered unacceptable, lest the bastards in Washington get any additional ideas.

 

Hybrid Hot Rodding

Blogger wouldn't let me post this as a comment on someone else's blog, so it's getting its own post here. So there.

Oberon posts that Toyota is none-too-happy with owners who are plugging in their Prius... Priuses? Priui? Whatever - plugging in their oddly-shaped hybrid sedans into the power grid. And the owners are claiming some pretty significant "fuel economy" improvements, especially when coupled with a larger battery pack.

Let's do the math on this one. Assume a Brake Specific Fuel Consumption of 0.4 lbs/HP/hour (this is perhaps too conservative; I've heard that Nextel Cup stock cars manage to beat this by a fair amount on non-restrictor-plate superspeedways). At a price of $2.44/gallon, obtaining power from the Prius's internal-combustion engine costs approximately $0.20 per kW-hour. So it's possible to save some money by charging a battery pack at perhaps $0.07/kW-Hr. Additionally, it's quite possible that the process of charging the battery pack via a stationary power plant can result in a reduction in emissions, as well as reducing our dependence on imported hydrocarbons. But I don't buy the claim of "180 miles per gallon" - that's not quite honest.

I admire the spirit of those who are starting to hot-rod hybrid cars, and from a practical standpoint, I think I called this one a couple of years ago. This field is going to get much more interesting in the coming years - makes me wish I could get into a hybrid cheaply enough to allow some experimentation.

Monday, April 04, 2005

 

Not Sure What I'd Put This In...

...but it's dang cool. Reading the auction description, it appears that it was crafted from two aluminum Buick 215 cid V6 blocks that were grafted together.

Betcha it'd look bitchin' in the right street rod.

 

Management Shake-Up At GM

The money quote, from Rick Wagoner:

"Bob felt he needed to devote his efforts to product development full-time, and I agreed."

So does this mean that Bob Lutz was doing something other than devoting all his time to product development before this latest re-org? I'm not sure how to read this quote any other way.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

 

Dinosaur Jr Reunite

Yes!:

The original members of Dinosaur Jr. will reunite after fifteen years apart for their first national television appearance. The indie rockers will perform on CBS' The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson on April 15th.

Vocalist/guitarist J Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow formed the band, originally called Dinosaur, in 1985 and were later joined by drummer Murph. Several seven-inches and two LPs on SST records followed before the rockers called it quits in 1989. Mascis would go on to record under the name, but without Barlow. Barlow turned to dual pursuits, Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion.

The first three Dinosaur Jr. albums -- Dinosaur, You're Living All Over Me and Bug -- were reissued last week on Merge Records.

That last bit is interesting, in light of the fact that many "older" CDs are becoming increasingly difficult to find in mass-market retail outlets or via the 'net.


 

Where's The Good Economic News?

The US economy failed to add the expected number of jobs last month, turning in its worst performance in eight months. The Eurozone is struggling, dragged down by high unemployment in Germany and France. Confidence is waning in Japan's recovery. Is it due to oil prices or tightening supplies of other resources? Or are we just lacking must-have products that really excite consumers? I don't know, but it sure goes to show that economics isn't a zero-sum game.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

 

Keys To GM's Truck Success

Without a doubt, GM's upcoming launch of their GMT900 full-size trucks and SUVs will be critical to their short-term success (the recent news that their pickup sales are still strong must be encouraging). So what's needed to ensure that these vehicles contribute to GM's bottom line? I'm going to aim my comments more at the pickup trucks, since frankly I'm out of touch with the needs of a modern SUV buyer.

Before getting into the features that I think could help GM's trucks in the marketplace, it needs to be said that the launch of these new vehicles needs to go off absolutely perfect. I wish that this could just be assumed, but I know better. I hope there's not some basic little detail that goes unaddressed.

OK, let's start with powertrains. It's already been rumored that the Atlas-series 4.2 L inline-6 from the GMT360 won't be making it into the full-size line, supposedly because it's too expensive. That's too bad, since it's a great engine. If I were in charge of the truck line, I'd want to look very hard at making this the base engine, replacing the 4.3 L which is, frankly, outdated.

Moving to the optional powerplants, I don't personally like the displacements offered in the current line-up. Since the wonderful 6.0 L isn't offered in the half-ton trucks, that leaves the 4.8 and 5.3 L. In my opinion, there's simply not enough difference between those two in terms of power or fuel economy to justify the existance of both, and the 5.3 L isn't competitive in the market with only 295 HP (although it should be noted that 20 years ago, a 165 HP 350 was big enough to tow most travel trailers, and the 454 was only rated at 245 HP). I'd like to see two options - a 5.0 L and the 6.0 L - and offer both in the half-tons as well as the heavy-duty pickups.

Next, as fuel economy becomes more important, I think that there will be a desire for unique engine options for half-ton applications (this requirement is already fulfilled by the Duramax diesel in the HD trucks). I see two options to compliment the upcoming hybrids - diesel, and forced-induction. GM's relationship with Isuzu was supposed to bring a variety of diesel engines into the fold - so where's a mini Duramax; say, a nice V6? Otherwise, I'd like to see a turbocharged or supercharged version of the I5 or I6 that would serve many customer's needs (real or perceived) better than a big V8.

The 6-speed autos can't get here soon enough. The 4L60E isn't strong enough for modern powerplants and has poor gear spacing, and the 4L80E is probably too heavy and inefficient for light-truck use. Placing durability above all else would give GM a huge advantage in the marketplace, since I'm universally underwhelmed by the limited life of light-truck automatics currently on the market. Offering one that lasts as long as the engine would be a huge selling point.

Seeing as how ride quality continues to be a selling point for light-duty trucks, I don't think it'd be unreasonable to think that the current Tahoe coil-spring rear suspension would be quite popular if made standard on the half-tons (at least on the 2WD versions).

Going in the opposite direction, I think that it'd be appropriate to offer a solid front axle as an option on 4WD HD trucks. The current IFS setup is fine for on-road use and probably the best choice for most consumers, but frankly a good solid-axle setup works better for severe commercial duty (plowing, farming, etc.).

GM already does a pretty good job with suspension tuning, and they're only getting better. They just need to make sure that the beancounters don't put an end to this practice.

Styling is a personal issue. I think the '03-up frontend is truly ugly - a poor attempt to emulate the sort of look that Dodge pulls off with ease. Either stick to the same sort of basic styling that allowed the '88-'02 trucks to age so gracefully, or find a way to pull off the SSR's styling in a slightly more mainstream fashion.

For the interiors, I'd be satisfied with something along the lines of GM's most-recent product offerings. The Cobalt makes uses of utilitarian materials that at least appear to be durable - I'd be satified with that, as anything much fancier just doesn't appeal to me in a truck (as beautiful as a Ford King Ranch interior may be, I wouldn't want to track manure into one). Make a nav system standard, since that'd be a useful item in a pickup truck. And don't delay in implementing new technology like Bluetooth, because by the time these vehicles launch, that sort of thing will surely be standard in cell phones and PDAs.

So there we go - at least the start of a decent list. I'll probably be adding more ideas as I think of them.

 

Ford Responds To Explorer Roof Concerns

The whole thing is over at BlueOvalNews.com - go read it.

I do think they bring up a great point by stating that the majority of the problems in rollover accidents stem not from structural failures but rather the failure to use safety belts, but I also think it's a bit of a strawman argument that's intended to distract from the issue at hand.

My biggest problem with the whole Crown Vic Police Interceptor ordeal wasn't that the car occassionally suffered from a fuel tank rupture, but rather that Ford refused to accept that there was a real-world failure mode that was not replicated in their testing and thus could not effectively respond to the issue (if you can't admit there's a problem, it's really tough to fix it - eh?). And I'm already picking up some of the same standoff-ish vibe with the roof strength issue.

Despite the fact that society been building cars for a century, we still find failure modes that were not properly comprehended - driving habits change, new types of vehicles bring new problems, and our society's acceptance of risk is a dynamic thing. That's fine - let's fix the problems when they occur, though, instead of hiding behind legal boilerplate.

 

Add Me To That List

In the most-recent Autoextremist "On The Table", they attempt to issue a smackdown to those who think they've got the solution to GM's woes:

The bottom line is GM's problems can't just be couched in terms of product, because there are too many other contributing factors that got them to this point. And if we read one more analyst crowing about the Chrysler 300C as an example of what GM needs, we're going to scream. We'd love to go back and compile a list of the analysts who, in seeing a preview of the 300C, stood up and shouted, "It's a grand slam home run!"

Well, first, I've known about the Chrysler LX since the fall of '01 (yea, this was when the automotive press was doing everything possible to dispell the notion that DCX was working on a RWD replacement for the LH), and once it became clear that it was getting a 5.7 L V8 I had absolutely no doubt about its future success. Build it, and they will come - in droves. Any car guy could have called that one, and trust me - as soon as the car was publically unveiled, I was all over the car-enthusiast bulletin boards proclaiming that it'd be a hit. The only thing I'm apologizing for is not having a sufficiently-large bullhorn.

But even though the majority of the auto press and pundits had thought (publically or privately) that the 300C and Magnum would flop, I still want those same people piling onto GM and making things very clear for the General - if only there was some idea down at the RenCen of what it means to be an American car manufacturer, then it'd be GM that would be basking in success right now. Rub GM's face in it.

Do all of GM's woes stem from the lack of any one particular product? Of course not. But it's not GM's crushing debt or other structural problems that have led to the increased scrutiny as of late - no, it's their short-term profitability, and that's linked directly to the fact that GM has no bold must-have vehicle in their showrooms.

A rebirth of the Caprice wouldn't save GM in the long term, but it sure as hell would have helped over the next five years by solidly contributing to the bottom line, and that would have bought GM something they sorely need right now - time.

Looks like it's going to be 2009 before we see mainstream RWD products from GM. Will that be too late?

Friday, April 01, 2005

 

Investment Advice For Car Guys

Normally, I only read automotive-related articles at Forbes.com if they're written by Jerry Flint, but I clicked through one of this articles today to a rather interesting piece of investment advice.

In short, the author suggests investing in companies producing high-current semiconductor products - the sort used in hybrid vehicles. Indeed, I share the author's enthusiasm for hybrids, and it's nice to see someone else who also feels that the auto industry is ripe for revolution.

However, I still have one concern about hybrids, at least those built with contemporary components - it takes a buttload of energy to process semiconductors and battery components. Broken down into oversimplified terms, the end cost of a product consists of raw material, energy, and labor. Modern electronic components are built in highly-automated facilities, which pretty much negates labor as a significant factor. Semiconductors are mostly silicon, which is, um, highly-processed sand. And how is that sand processed into those pretty wafers? That's right - lots and lots of energy, with even more thrown in during the rest of the fabrication process. Check out this paper for a study of the energy that goes into the chemicals used during semiconductor fab, and a more-comprehensive study of not only energy but also raw material and other resource use can be found here. High current means lots of semiconductor volume, so for the time being, there's going to be a significant energy investment in every hybrid that rolls off the line.

It's not just electronics, either. Lightweight structures will probably see broader use as fuel economy increases in importance, but the processing of aluminum is terribly energy-intensive.

The point here is not to poo-poo the idea of hybrids, or the idea of investing in companies contributing to the production of them. But if the primary motivation for mainstream acceptance of hybrid technology is to save energy, then one absolutely must understand the role that energy plays in the production of modern technology. It'd be wise to keep this in mind while pondering the long-term future of personal transportation, and certainly before pronouncing hybrids as the almighty savior.

 

Things That Don't Mix WIth Alcohol

Um, well, it would appear that a chainsaw is one of them. And the combination is worse if you decide to go after police officiers with it while intoxicated.

0.485% BAC? Dang.

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